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Ghost of Employees Past

August 22, 2009

More than anything else, what has always made me most uneasy about large corporate organisations is how quickly they move on after shedding their people, no matter how long they’ve been part of the organization, no matter how big a part the company played in that person’s life.

My first brush with this was in an American investment bank during my summer internship back in my second year. Someone sitting close to my desk had quit and I was a bit taken aback at how quickly that person stopped existing in the memory of the bank and the people he worked with. The very next day, his telephone number was reset, the email address was deleted, his name was never brought up again in conversations since and that was that – almost like he was never part of the team at all.

Then, after a most enjoyable year at a startup firm where things couldn’t be more different in terms of work culture and employee value systems, I joined the investment banking industry full-time. Just in time for one of the most brutal carnages in the industry, how very nice.

Employees were let go off at the drop of a hat, all manner of smokes-and-mirrors techniques were employed by senior management to ensure complete insulation between those who remained in the bank and those who were ‘let go’ (odd term that, like people are fighting to go, which they are, in good times). The ones who are placed on ‘at risk of redundancy’ lists faced varying levels of isolation from BAU, as demanded by their role. Traders & middle office staff disappeared from the scene, deleted from the org like bits of data on the hard-disk of a computer – no farewell emails, no goodbyes, no personal contact details exchanged – decades of worklife and personal connections formed at work had their plugs pulled out in an instant. Disconcerting, to say the least, but the best business practice, all things considered.

Moving onto my third such organisation, I noted on my first day here that there was a particular lady hailing from a minority group who liked to create mini-storms in the office with her outrageously exposing clothes and overt flirting with cute sub-ordinates. It was her birthday a few weeks ago and she’d bought a massive pile of biscuits, chocolates, munchies and what not to treat the few teams sitting close by. A couple of days after this, all of us were trooped into a meeting room to inform us that a particular long-drawnout grievance issue has been settled (dammit, how did I not know about this!? Goss!) and that the abovementioned lady has parted ways with the organisation. Discussing the matter is now deemed an offense in the department and could invite disciplinary action.

So that was that. A person was let go of and I did not even know the story (although I would eventually get to know more later on). But the pile of treats she had brought in for her birthday, the remains of that stayed here long after her. It was strange how the goodies sat in an accusing heap and everyone skirted around the topic of her leaving just as everyone skirted around the desk on which it sat. Nobody seemed to want to risk suggesting throwing away these obviously stale snacks, lest it be seen to be suggestive of their attitude towards the employee who had, one may say, sadly departed.

The weekend when the cleaner finally, at long last, removed the left-over, long-gone cookies, cakes and bakes was, for those who had worked with her, very much like a much-needed exorcism of a ghost of an employee past.

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