Mind ReaderWith all the horrible things happening in the world lately, it seems terribly shallow not to comment on those events. But who am I to comment on the Boston bombings or the collapse of a garnment factory in Bangladesh? I’ve read some thoughtful analyses and some dreadful statements about those events, and my comments would just add to the cacophony. So, better to stick to topics I know something about…

Three weeks ago tomorrow, a story started hitting the news in Canada and remained at the forefront of the news cycle for a whole week: how my employer was outsourcing 45-50 Toronto-based IT jobs to a company in India. However, the whistleblower’s spark that ignited the media shit storm was his revelation that he and his colleagues were expected to train the very people who would be taking their jobs which would remain in Toronto (i.e., not to go India) for at least a few years. It seemed, on the surface, that my employer was using, perhaps quite legally, the federal government’s temporary foreign workers program to reduce costs which, as we know, is a sacrosanct imperative intended to (always) increase shareholders’ dividends.

Record scratching

  • Just 24 hours earlier, I blogged about lemons being squeezed. I even wrote, as though to reassure myself, that “I do believe my job security is pretty damn good.” However, while it’s true that my performance record gives me confidence that I’m not about to lose my job overnight, I’d be lying if I said that I’m confident about my current position. I toil within a “cost centre” and big employers like mine aren’t the best at grasping return on investment (ROI) in intangible terms like “goodwill” because it’s nearly impossible to come up with a mathematical formula to express the following: “We spent X on service without charging the clients for it but the clients were so pleased that it generated Y in additional sales over an unspecified amount of time and Z in lower on-going support costs.” That’s just too wishy-washy for an organization whose attention deficit leads it to only understand hard numbers (i.e., cash) over one quarter or one year to the next, especially since there has to be a leap of faith that those desired consequences WILL really occur.
  • When the news hit, I immediately thought of my father. He was more of a foot soldier at work than I have ever been, and he worked nearly 40 years for the same large company but endured numerous slights because he was francophone and, yes, more of a foot solider. However, when he decided to take his retirement, management decided to technically abolish his position and create a new position that melded his with some other position. Fine… except he had to spend his last work weeks learning that other position in order to train the person who would be replacing him. Apparently that’s one of the only times my father ever spoke out: “You’re bent on grossing people out right to the end, aren’t ya!”
  • I need to give credit where it’s due: my employer, unlike others of its type, has kept client-facing call centres in Canada. But shortly after I started, our in-house tech support was outsourced to India and we’ve collectively come to call it the “useless desk” rather than the help desk. I learned a useful trick which I’ve share with many of my colleagues: if you need to call our in-house tech support and you understand just enough French to follow a few prompts, start by selecting French as your language and you’ll end up with someone in our call centre in Montréal where they all speak English as well. In other words, lucky for us that the British tried to colonize India and there is currently no emerging economy in a country that was colonized by the French or the Belgians! And it certainly beats having to deal with a dud of an agent who can only read scripts and is forbidden to think for him/herself, let alone truly listen to the caller’s request.

What really got to me about this whole debacle is the disconnect. Whether it’s this or other situations to which I’m privied (but obviously can’t disclose publicly), I can’t count the number of decisions that are taken “higher up” that confirm a kind of tone-deafness. I mean… generally speaking, the public hates banks; therefore, you would think that those with decisional power would bear this fact in mind. I’m not advocating giving away the farm; no business, big or small, can do everything for free. Even I, in my own household, am always trying to find ways of cutting unnecessary costs. Aside from being a responsible, respectful, and law-abiding citizen, I have a personal responsibility to live and hopefully prosper within my means, not to feed an economic machine beyond my means.

I also got a kick out of the public outrage — in a good way and in a bad way. For instance, many declared they would be closing their accounts at the bank. My thoughts on that were mixed: I appreciated the sentiment of taking a stand, but doubted it would translate into concrete action. For one thing, closing a chequing or savings account is easy enough, but not loans, insurance policies or mortgages. What’s more, all banks are guilty to some degree of the practice that produced such outrage, leaving only credit unions as the only alternative.

Coincidentally, I’ve been a client at the bank that eventually became my employer for nearly 30 years. It has made a great deal of money on me over those years given the amount of debt I’ve carried until recently, but I take full responsibility for that debt. It’s not like I would suddenly get a bill for an arbitrary $20K that I had never spent but had no choice but to pay. Plus, whenever something bad happened (like when illegal charges were placed on my credit card in February 2003, or last year when my building’s super deposited two rent cheques on the same day), the bank always fixed things in my favour.

Let’s say I weren’t employed by the bank. For one, I still owe it money. For another, would I really have the strength of character to go through the whole hassle? As laughable as it is, this bank currently offers the best rate on savings than any other bank in Canada. Do I sacrifice this on principle? Do I buy or not buy that lovely and inexpensive shirt manufactured in Bangladesh? I’d like to answer “Yes” without hesitation. Am I morally bankrupt for hesitating, or is it that our whole market economy is stacked in such a way that it’s too hard to take a stand? I mean, it’s easy enough not to buy the cheap shirt from Bangladesh or the fried chicken from the homophobic business, but giving up electronic payments and stuffing cash in my mattress doesn’t strike me as feasible for the sake of taking a stand.

Also, do you think a bank CEO gives a flying fuck if Joe Q. Public closes his measily account? Put it this way: a CEO might only care about those individuals who fall in the one percent and uses the bank’s wealth management services, or those companies that generate huge revenues. Granted, if thousands of Joe Q. Publics close their measily account, the CEO might notice, but what would happen next? The Joe Q. Publics who also work at that bank might lose their job — possibly more Joe Q. Publics than the number of people affected by the decision that caused the initial outrage.

Speaking of whom: The bank did state by the end of the bad-press week that those 45-50 people would be offered jobs elsewhere in the bank. I have no reason to doubt the validity of that statement. However, I do wonder about the whistleblower. I have no way to verify, but I’m more inclined to think he was paid off to leave and shut up forever …but I could be wrong.

Banks are, after all, non-unionized environments. They offer employees work conditions designed to keep unions out. As for those of us who work in a bank: our jobs are not about screwing people over. We’re mere specks standing low within a huge hierarchical bureaucracy.

I sleep at night because I know that I, personally, do no harm in the performance of my job. And that goes for more than 99 percent of us.