Thursday, 15 March 2012

Burning Your Bridges Seldom Gets You Anywhere

Resigning in a fit of pique is usually unedifying and counter-productive. Greg Smith’s parting shot at Goldman Sachs is no exception.

I’m willing to bet that a year from now Goldman Sachs will still be here, making colossal amounts of money, and most people will have forgotten who Greg Smith is. Actually make that a month from now. Better yet, a week. Smith is the now former head of the firm’s US equity derivatives business in EMEA who resigned yesterday in a New York Times article purporting to blow the whistle, sensationally, on the moral bankruptcy of his employers. In doing so, Smith has broken one of the rules that I am constantly preaching to my co-workers and friends: never burn a bridge.

I’m not here to pour scorn on Smith or to defend Goldman Sachs. Whatever you think of Smith’s actions – selfless hero, idiot, martyr or grandstander – there is one thing that is for certain: he is never going to be invited back to Goldmans again. Maybe he doesn’t want to be invited back and maybe he has made enough money during his 12 years at the firm that he won’t need to work again. Maybe his moment in the limelight will secure him a lucrative new career as a talking head on CNBC. Or maybe it won’t. The truth is that he has no real idea what is down the road for him and I think there’s a good chance that at some point he will come to regret doing what he did. His card is now marked. Financial services is a small world and many of the movers and shakers have political connections too (particularly at Goldmans), so when I said that most people will have forgotten who Greg Smith is, you can bet that some very annoyed important people will never forget his name and he may find that doors that he might like to walk through are not open to him in the future. Whoever hires him will always have the lingering worry that he might pull a similar stunt again.

For those of us that work further down the food chain than Smith, of course the stakes are lower, but the effects of leaving under a cloud can be similar. I have seen many examples of people resigning over some perceived mistreatment and regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, there was invariably a section of their co-workers and management that viewed their behaviour as immature and unedifying. I can think of at least one guy who would love to return to his former employer but can’t because of the way he chose to leave. In the modern workplace, particularly with tools like Linkedin, it’s increasingly easy to see where people have come from and who they may have worked with when they were there. Although written references are now not really worth the paper they are printed on, verbal references are easier to obtain than ever before for prospective employers. Why give your former employer a reason to say something unflattering about you?
We’ve all had our Jerry Maguire moments (Jerry, you may recall, was the disillusioned sports agent who had an epiphany in the middle of the night, wrote a manifesto about the state of the cut throat world he worked in, distributed it to his colleagues, and got fired for it), but fortunately most of us have remembered, before hitting the Send button, that we’re not Tom Cruise and flouncing off in a huff is likely to land you in big trouble at home – tell your other half that you’ve just lost your job over a point of principle and you’re unlikely to get ‘you had me at hello’.

None of this is to say that challenging unprincipled behaviour in the workplace is not important, or that real grievances should ever be tolerated by employees or swept under the rug by employers. But there are usually proper channels for whistleblowing (especially in regulated industries) and, in the worst cases, proper avenues for legal redress. An Op Ed piece in the New York Times is not one of these.
Personally I do not see a grievance of that magnitude in Smith’s case – certainly not one that he could pin a constructive dismissal claim to. He talks about Goldmans ‘ripping off’ their clients, but then is very quick to point out that he had no evidence of unlawful behaviour by anyone in the firm, so what does he really mean? Managing Directors referring to clients as ‘muppets’ in private conversations is lacking in decorum, but we all know it goes on, and is it any different from the waiter who curses the ghastly customer in the privacy of the kitchen (before spitting in his soup)? Rudeness about clients doesn’t just stop at unskilled jobs. From what I can tell, Smith just didn’t like what Goldmans did.

So if you don’t like what your employer is doing that’s fine, Smith is by no means the first or last employee to vote with his feet. But, unless you absolutely have to, please walk away in a dignified way and don’t give yourself a self-inflicted wound on the way out. A lot of people don’t like the way in which Goldman Sachs and other financial services institutions make their money, so Smith will doubtless have a legion of admirers, but my advice is do not try and copy him.