Tuesday, April 23, 2013

From the Yin to the Yang and Back - Chapter 2

My Career

Occasionally, I get together with people I used to work with at HSBC.  There is always a lot of catching up, but invariably we end up reminiscing and talking about how none of our current jobs compare to our old jobs and how we'll probably never work in an environment like that again.  So ...  what was it that made us so special in an organization whose name has become synonymous with words like "downsize", "job elimination", "stress", and "money laundering"?

I came to work for HSBC (still Marine Midland Bank at the time) in 1989.  I had come to the difficult conclusion that the accounting world was not one for which I was suited - after four years of college and having passed the CPA exam.  While I was trying to figure out what to do next, I accepted a position in the Retirement Financial Services Department at Marine Midland Bank.  It was only to be a way to support myself for a while.  I guess I should have known right away that it would be a long term commitment when I found out that two people who I went to high school with were working in the department, and in fact, I had graduated with one of them and she was starting on the same day as I was.  Karma - if you believe in that sort of thing. 

We were a young crowd of mostly women, all of us single.  As the years went on, we acquired more men (our Senior Manager, in particular), but by and large, we were independent career girls in a niche industry.   We were not traditional banking, and over the years, Senior Management could never seem to figure out where we belonged within the bank's infrastructure.  The last place we landed was the Commercial Banking Division, presumably to take advantage of cross-selling opportunities - which translates into "we will attempt to force our commercial banking customers to use you to administer their 401(k) plans".  This all had an odd bonding effect on us.  We were like those shirt-tail relatives from the other side of the country that you never quite knew how to talk to or what to do with when they visited you.  There was an insular quality to our work environment, and we became very close.

I was on rocky times with my personal friends at this point in my life.  I married in 1990 and that seemed to be the beginning of the end of those relationships.  Slowly but surely, my co-workers began to fill in the gaps.  We were all getting engaged and married - four of us in a three-year period.  And then the babies started coming.  One of our managers was moved to another department because... she was marrying our Senior Manager (surprise!), and they went on to have three children - including twins.    Our children grew and flourished. All of this was going on while our department grew and gained a reputation for being able to deliver high quality personal and customized service to large 401(k) plans.   We took great pride in our work.  And, we took pride in our special celebrations for birthdays and holidays, wedding and baby showers and our annual family picnic in our Manager's back yard.

What is all too often true is that it is not only the joy but the sorrow that draws us closer to one another. One of our clerks suffered a stillbirth at seven months into her pregnancy brought on by a tragic misdiagnosis of a serious condition.  Another clerk suffered a stroke and succumbed days later.  The manager of our administrators went home one weekend and suffered a fatal heart attack.  Our IT liaison battled two bouts of breast cancer, and we rallied around her, hosting "Pink Days" where everything and everyone was draped in pink.  We sent care packages to her with pictures of our group looking like we'd bathed in Pepto Bismol.   We were a tight-knit group to be sure, and I thought that there wasn't anything I wouldn't do for these people.

As they say, nothing lasts forever.  We were not profitable enough for the organization that nowadays is mainly known for job eliminations and providing money laundering services for people with terrorist connections.  One by one, our managers were forced to implement outsourcing projects that were failures.  Failures, because we had a product that was centered around quality service.  Quality service and outsourcing rarely go hand-in-hand.  Predictably, our large and longstanding clients began to leave us.  We kept our heads up, but on some level, I think we all knew that things weren't working and that there was no going back in time.  In April 2007, we were called into conference and told that our department would close, effective December 31, 2007.  It was a testament to our managers, our Senior Manager in particular, that we received a generous severance package that was way above and beyond what others in our situation were receiving.  They fought for us.  They fought for us, I believe, because they knew how difficult it would be for us to find positions elsewhere in HSBC.  Our niche product, our specialized product for which we had been rewarded over the years with higher salaries, would be our downfall.  Not surprisingly, those at the very top and those at the very bottom of the chain found new jobs at HSBC .  The rest of us were set free.  I was fortunate to be extended to March 2008 to help with post-closing clean up.  A lot of people were gone after January 31, 2008.  On February 3rd, I walked into a sea of empty desks.  There were four of us left.   On that same day, people from redeployment appeared and swarmed around us, removing computers and phones.  I could barely contain myself while I watched this, and when they finally left the floor, I burst into tears.  It felt as thought somebody had died and, indeed - somebody or something had died.

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate and blessed to have found another job in the 401(k) industry.  I desperately wanted things to be the same, but it was not to be.  Looking back, I think that I did not truly begin mourning the loss that I had experienced until it dawned on me that I could never recreate what had once been.   I realized that there are once in a lifetime experiences that we don't recognize or appreciate until they are gone.    This weird sort of mourning depression was something that I was not prepared for, and I was at a total loss as to how to handle my feelings.   I had spent close to twenty years helping Bill transition from one failed job to the next.  Helping myself was a completely foreign concept.  He was not remotely helpful or empathetic.  I think that he was just wrapped up in his own problems and didn't understand what I had to be sad about.  I remember being so angry at him and saying things like "well maybe if you'd ever stayed anywhere for more than three or four years, you might get it."   My words were like pouring gasoline on a fire.  My only excuse was that I simply could not deal with what was happening to me, and the only thing I knew I was good at was lashing out.  So that's what I did.  While my career continued to flourish, my personal life was crumbling around me.

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