Tuesday, June 30, 2009

If You're Not Part of the Solution ...

How does a cliché become a cliché?

Those of us who write have been warned all our lives not to use clichés too much. If clichés are used infrequently, I was taught, they can be extremely effective. But they should not be used too often, or else the writer may come to be seen as unoriginal — and, thus, be viewed as irrelevant.

A cliché tends to come into existence as a nugget of truth. It may evolve into a stereotype that is unfairly applied, but it had a legitimate starting point and a reason for being in the first place.

I guess that explains why there are times when a person may hear something that is so perplexing that the immediate reaction is a cliché.

That was how it was for me when I heard that Citigroup plans to raise workers' base salaries by as much as 50% to make up for smaller annual bonuses.

My first thought was, "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

I'm sure that, at this point, I don't need to tell the Citigroup story in detail. What you need to know is that Citigroup received two federal bailouts because it mishandled things so badly.

And it is also worth mentioning that the federal government will soon assume more than one–third ownership of the company.

But, on some points, I feel confused, just as I did when I worked for a company that was purchased by Citigroup.

The assumption by many, I'm sure, is that Citigroup is plotting to raise executive salaries to get around the reduced bonuses. But, according to the news reports I have read, Citigroup can do what it wants in regard to salary for any employee who is not in the top 100 in compensation.

Therefore, this plan applies, as Eric Dash writes in the New York Times, to the "rank–and–file employees." That would make me happy for my former co–workers, if it weren't for the fact that Citigroup terminated about half of the people in my old office more than a year ago. I don't know how many people I knew are still there.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has some definite ideas about Citigroup and makes some good points in an editorial on this subject. But sometimes the Inquirer's reasoning escapes me.

"You can see the logic of greed at work here," the Inquirer writes. "If they're losing their fat bonuses, why not make up the difference by hiking base salaries? Merely switching bonus dollars to regular pay isn't fooling anyone. It's the logic of a company that still doesn't get the message of the bailout."

Excuse me, but am I missing something? Based on that paragraph, it seems to me that the Inquirer is suggesting that these salary increases are going to the executives whose bonuses have been reduced. But my understanding is that ordinary employees will see the salary increases, not the executives.

If anyone suggests that rank–and–file salaries will go up to offset reduced bonuses, they can't be talking about the office I worked in. The company I worked for was purchased by Citigroup in 2002, but the rank–and–file workers never received a single bonus from then until the time I left in January 2008.

Even so, it does seem to me that the bailout money wasn't intended for salaries, even if the salaries in question are the ones paid to the employees who have been doing the work they were instructed to do and not the executives who implemented the risky policies.

"Officials at Citigroup say they need to pay higher salaries to keep talent," the Inquirer says. "If the gene pool is so talented, how did the firm get into this trouble in the first place?"

Well, again, it seems to me that Citigroup's employees are the ones who will see the salary increases in this plan, not the executives. The employees were not behind the policies that wrecked the economy.

I may be guilty of misreading this editorial — and if I am, I apologize to the Inquirer — but my understanding is that Citi is trying to retain its best workers. That makes sense to me. Whatever top–notch employees there are at Citi would probably leave if they feel they cannot make as much as they would if they left and went to a competitor.

A friend of mine says he read an article that said Citi only intended to raise salaries on those with better–than–average performance reviews. That seems logical, but my guess is they will screw it up like they did everything else.

Dash is correct when he observes that "[t]he Citigroup proposals ... present a crucial test for the Obama administration," but he goes on to point out that "administration officials have little power to prevent the company and others in the industry from raising salaries for rank–and–file employees."

As a recipient of federal funds, Citigroup's activities will — and should — be scrutinized. Perhaps, after close inspection, we'll get some clarification on a lot of things — not just who is getting a salary increase.

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