If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’ 1989 bestseller ‘Liar’s Poker’ about his brief life as a broker at Soloman Bros investment bank on Wall Street, you really should.
A cracking good read, it set the stage perfectly for the culture of greed that predominated the world of high finance until last autumn when decades of excess caught up with the so-called money ‘Masters of the Universe’, perfectly depicted in iconic novels like Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.
‘Liar’s Poker’ also launched Lewis’ journalism career and his current analysis of the global solvency and credit crisis is both top rate and eminently readable.
Last week in two fascinating articles, Lewis made a couple of novel suggestions for companies that are facing difficult decisions about how to keep their workforce intact.
He also wrote about the dilemma facing baby boomers whose property values; pension and investment funds have collapsed, shattering their retirement plans.
“The combination of skyrocketing food and energy costs, rising medical costs, falling real estate values and stagnant wages is putting increasing numbers of workers in financial distress,” writes Lewis.
“A distressed workforce can hardly be a productive workforce, and companies must do whatever it takes to make it physically possible for their employees to function. What can companies do to remedy this situation?” he asks.
Well, how about treating the company like a family unit in order to cut down everyone’s day to day essential spending and overheads?
Some firms are already implementing reduced pay, shorter working weeks or unpaid holidays in an effort to cut down on payroll and production costs.
But how many have considered going so far as to provide goods and services to their workforces in lieu of pay or as part payment for more expensive clawed back benefits?
Lewis suggests that companies should consider using their greater spending clout to help lower paid workers who are struggling to meet their daily costs by:
* ramping up their canteen facilities to include breakfast and early evening meals – with takeaway dinners also available to bring home to families
* by providing wholesale grocery or petrol vouchers for free or at discount prices, setting up group insurance schemes if they aren’t already in place and
* even offering to house younger, single workers by renting properties in empty estates. (It’s already been done in the meat trade for immigrant workers.)
Here in Ireland there are benefit-in-kind tax issues to address, but in desperate times – and few would doubt after the Dell announcement in Limerick that the government might want to ease up on its Revenue rules – such roadblocks shouldn’t be insurmountable.
Google, whose European HQ is based in Dublin includes “first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, car washes, dry cleaning, commuting buses – just about anything a hardworking employee engineer might want,” Lewis adds.
These benefits are in addition to a generous package of wages and conventional benefits.
However, the message shouldn’t be lost on smaller, struggling companies: in a downturn some creative thinking needs to be considered to reduce costs, but also keep your best assets – your people – intact.
Some workers may not be able to take a pay cut or a reduced working week if they can’t also put food on the table or find the money to tax and insure and put petrol in their car.
But if personal expenses can be offset by the bigger purchasing power of a company that can command wholesale or discount rates and there’s a willingness to consider the unconventional, then why not?
As the thousands of workers affected by the Dell factory closure and all affected by the collapse of Waterford Wedgwood, this is not a brief economic downturn.
It’s something we have lived through a few times since the Irish economy was finally dragged into the late 20th century and the birth of the Celtic Tiger around 1993-94.
This one is going to kick the living daylights out of big and small companies – and countries, as it has already to poor little Iceland, to the nearly bankrupt Ukraine and Hungary – before it’s over.
And it’s going to take imagination, fortitude and cooperation as well as hard work and luck to get us out the other side, bruised and bloody but still standing.
Next week: Could you live with your old roommates again? At 65?