We’re in the fourth quarter. If you work in banking that means one thing: layoffs. The fourth quarter is the death zone, the cold months when banks dump staff and cut costs before bonuses are paid.
The redundancy process in investment banks is a thing of urban myth. Surplus bankers are given archetypal black bin bags and cardboard boxes and told to clear their desks. One moment they’re there. The next, they’re sitting in Starbucks devoid of their work Blackberry.
“I was sitting next to this guy who was asking me how to build an interest rate swap,” says Heather Katsonga-Woodward, a former banker at Goldman Sachs and HSBC turned banking careers coach. “Midway through, he got a call and was called into a room. He said he’d be back in a moment to continue our conversation, but never reappeared.”
The process is familiar to anyone who works in a large bank. “You’ll suddenly get a call from HR inviting you to a random floor of the building,” says one equity salesman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s usually not completely unexpected though – you know when you’re a poor performer and your product is down against the market. You have an idea of what’s going to happen.”
A head of HR at one investment bank in the City told anthropologist Joris Luyendijk that he and his colleagues try to appear innocuous when inviting people to redundancy meetings. "When the call comes, people know right away. We may use the most innocent tone of voice when we say: 'Hi, could you pop up to the 20th floor for a moment?.… After our conversation, which typically lasts five minutes, they will be led out of the building by security."
Linda Jackson, chief consultant at 10-Eighty, a career management and outplacement company, works with banks to ensure layoffs go smoothly. She says banking redundancies aren’t always brutal and immediate. “People will usually be told that their position is at risk and will be given a few weeks to look for alternative jobs elsewhere in the organization.” Last month, Credit Suisse is understood to have told members of its London equities business that their jobs were at risk, for example. Often, however, this kind of forewarning applies to non-sensitive infrastructure roles where it doesn’t matter that disgruntled employees continue will to have access to the bank’s systems.
Last year, fixed income employees at UBS learned of their impending redundancies as part of the bank’s 'strategic acceleration from a position of strength' when they turned up and found their passes wouldn't work. KPMG, which isn't a bank and should really know better, informed staff their jobs were at risk in March 2012 by asking them to dial in and listen to a recorded voice message from a senior partner.