small change toward a rich life

Working for a financial company during a financial crisis (… or not)

The post you’re about to read first appeared here on October 27th, for less than 24 hours.

On the morning of October 28th, while en route to work after a doctor’s appointment, I received a call from the Human Resources director of the company that had employed me for nearly three years. He asked if I had written this, and I said yes (I assume this was a formality — I’d never tried to keep my blog a secret, and my name was right there). He informed me that my post was in violation of company policy, and that I should not return to work. “Why? What company policy?” I stammered, in tears. “Disclosure of company private information,” he replied. I said I was sorry, that I had no idea I’d said anything private, but that I could take the post down. “Everything in this building is private,” he replied, and told me to go home and await further communication.

I went home, immediately deleted the post and emailed that I had done so, with another apology and protestation of innocent intent. The next day my manager called and told me that he’d been instructed to fire me, that there was nothing he could do.

So less than 48 hours after making this post, I was terminated, with no warning and no recourse. The fact that I had transgressed in ignorance, that I was willing to remove the post and not so much as mention the company ever again, made no difference.

I was floored. There’s a substantial argument to be made that I was absurdly naive and I should not have been shocked by this turn of events, to which I can only shrug, helpless. It’s probably true. No matter how hard I work to fit in, I am not very good at understanding, much less anticipating, the corporate mindset; my core personality traits — such as honesty and openness — are not assets in most corporate cultures.

After the first shock wore off, I was thrown into both a panic over finding replacement work and depression over my error of judgment. For a long time I was unable to bear anything to do with Pocketmint because of the emotional association.

Months passed; I recovered my equilibrium. I thought about Pocketmint a lot, and decided that it was too important to me to just abandon forever, and so began to post once more.

And now I’m restoring the one post I ever withdrew. My intent is not vindictive; I just want to explain the November-to-May gap.

•   •   •

Working for a financial company during a national (global?) financial crisis is … interesting, in the Chinese-curse sense.

Under normal circumstances, I have little contact with the brokerage side of the business (and none whatsoever with the bank). I do the graphic design for the subsidiary which sells 401(k) plans to small businesses, a nearly unrelated proposition.

For the past three weeks, though, it’s been absolutely crazy. ShareBuilder was receiving nearly triple the expected number of new account applications for the month of October, and up to ten times the typical number of calls to its customer care line. The web site, being pounded mercilessly with people trying to trade, periodically slowed to a crawl, which of course only increased the calls to customer care, and so on.

In order to keep the phone wait times down, the company president called for all hands on deck starting October 6th. Dozens of new phone stations were cobbled together and staffed with employees from other departments. I sat through two hours of Powerpoint training, a two-minute explanation of which buttons to push on the phone, and then was turned loose on the poor unsuspecting callers, with no more information than what I could glean on the fly from the ShareBuilder public web site.

I gathered later that some of the recruits received more training and assistance than I did, and many were coming from jobs that were more relevant than mine, but my personal position was fairly miserable. No one was asking the easy questions we were prepped to answer in our quick overview, and I didn’t know the answers to the questions they were asking. Nor did I have access to view any customer accounts, which almost every caller required. I felt useless and terrible, repeating my mantra of “I’m sorry, I don’t know, let me transfer you,” and went AWOL from the so-called “Orange Army” as quickly as possible.

As of today, things seem to be back to a more normal state; the emergency phone stations have sat empty all day. Twenty-seven new customer care employees are into their second week of training in the big conference room downstairs. Our saviors!

I don’t have any official confirmation, but word on the floor was that a large majority of the people calling in were trying to buy rather than sell — this also accounted for the high number of new accounts. I find that fascinating, especially considering that ShareBuilder targets mainly inexperienced, small-figure investors. It suggests that a lot of ordinary folk may see the drop in the stock market as an opportunity rather than a calamity.

I hope they’re right. I’ve been doing a great deal of financial study lately, and not finding much cause for reassurance. I am deeply worried that we are making the same mistake about the stock market that we recently made about the housing market — assuming that because something has been true in the past, it will be true in the future. I’ll talk more about that in a future post (or several).

One thing I’m sure of: we are indeed living in interesting times.


2 responses

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  1. RG says

    wow, that’s a lot of private information to post in public during a financial crisis. first you paint a very negative picture of their training and customer service, then you reveal volume data that I assume is not publicly available until quarter-end. Your firing wasn’t simply corporations mindset, you broach the territory of illegal insider information. I can remember that month, how volatile the climate was, the phrase “lit a match in a powderkeg” comes to mind.

    • Karawynn says

      Mm, I don’t think (nor did anyone ever suggest) that I was anywhere near the point of ‘insider information’ — nothing I speculated about (lots of trading, more buying than selling) was anything that couldn’t have been proven (or disproven) by watching the actual movements of the market.

      I was apparently naive about how people — both inside and outside the company — would view my story of being put to work on the phones. Personally, I assumed that my individual misery was the result of an extraordinary situation that no one had foreseen, and that the company was doing its best to fix the problem (e.g. hire and train more customer support) as soon as possible.

      That is arguably a personality flaw — my tendency to assume the best of people in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary — and it is one that I am gathering most people don’t share. (Certainly it’s a poor survival characteristic; I would probably turn it off if I could.) I remember, after I first posted the above, that Jak said something to me about how badly ShareBuilder came off in my story, and I was genuinely surprised. Even now, I read the above as unfortunate, but not blameworthy.

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