Sunday, October 4, 2009

So long and thanks for all the fish

posted Tue, 07 Sep 2004

I am looking through the ‘service anniversary’ section of the daily e-newsletter my company issues. There are a couple of folks celebrating 45 years with the company. Many with 40 and 35. You don’t even get on the list until you have 25 years, it seems.

I will never make it onto that list. I guess I could, if I stuck around for another 19 years, but the very idea makes me dizzy. I never thought I would be at this company for six years, but here I am, working on seven. Sheesh. (I am not big on commitment, if it’s not obvious.)

How does a company get people to stick around that long? It used to be that the loyalty was reciprocal. But now, layoffs and job eliminations are common. I have survived about four rounds of staff cuts since I moved to M’town. There are a few benefits to being one of about, oh, I don’t know, five women with MBAs who are willing to work at such a place. The company has set ‘diversity targets,’ and although philosophically, the idea makes me want to puke, I do benefit from it.

I can’t get complacent, though. Last year, they fired a senior black male executive, one of about six in the entire company. (I am totally guessing about that number, but I know there are not many.) He must have really ticked off some bigwigs for them to sacrifice that checkmark on their scorecard.

I’m going to go off on a tangent here. How come they always refer to minor celebrities with regular jobs as “executives?” I can’t find a dictionary definition to support what I am about to say here, but when I think of an executive where I work, I am thinking of senior-level persons, like director level or above.

When they talk about ‘executive compensation,’ they are not talking about the ordinary people. Ordinary people do not get stock grants. We might get stock options, with a strike price 40% higher than the market will ever see again, so there’s no big benefit there. (My mom asked me, “Why would you pay $59 a share when you could get it on the open market for $28?” Exactly.)

Ordinary people also do not get 150% bonus. Or special life insurance. There are all sorts of goodies that execs get that the rest of us do not. Which is OK as long as there is full disclosure and the stockholders know what they are paying for.

Back to executives. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was referred to as a ‘public-relations executive.’ She was in her mid-20s when she had that job. The impression I have of her job is that she went to parties with people and looked beautiful, which is not to be discounted as a clothes-selling strategy, but is not executive work. I think we need to agree as a society that the word “executive” is not to be used for anyone under the age of 35 unless she has started her own company.

Back to longevity at a company. My employer tried to put a fast one past us. There were a bunch of focus groups a few years ago where they solicited employee input on benefits issues. My company is one of the few US companies left that has a nice, fat pension plan. The old timers – people who have worked long hours for not-great pay at backbreaking, hot, sweaty, dangerous work – are going to get decent pensions and won’t have to eat cat food unless they want to.

One of the issues raised in the focus group I attended was that pension plan. What if they changed it? The real question was, of course, what if they cut the benefits for those people who had worked 30 and 45 years with the promise of a defined benefit (as opposed to a defined contribution) plan? The company already intended to change the pension for everyone with fewer than a certain number of years of service. The question was what to do about the older employees.

Running the group were two women from TPF&C (I think) in their mid 20s (executives). They presented this option casually, as if no one in the room – we were all in our late 30s – would really care because it wouldn’t be US who would be affected. Our benefits were already being cut. We were already moving to pension plan lite. They were surprised at the vehemence of our reactions. We were – to a person – appalled. You cannot do that, we said. The company promised. That is morally wrong.

But it’s not YOUR pensions that are affected, they kept saying. It would just be these OTHER people. Right. So it’s OK to screw someone as long as I am not screwed myself.

I am relieved to report that the company decided not to change the benefit plan it had promised to these people. I am disgusted that the idea was even floated.

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