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Terminated by Email

Merry Christmas, You’re Fired

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

During the holiday season it is always good to be reminded of one’s many blessings. In the case of UBS employees they can be thankful that they work for UBS and not Sanofi-Aventis. The news they received shortly before Christmas is far less upsetting than the news many employees at Sanofi-Aventis received. UBS employees were told how to dress for work. Sanofi employees were told they were no longer working. First Sanofi.

Sanofi has a tradition of firing people at a time when spirits are high and news of the fact that one no longer has a job is not as traumatic as it would be at a time when there is no other reason to be happy. The most recent occurrence came right after Thanksgiving. According to Laura Bassett of Huffington Post, on November 30 of this year, employees received "happy thanksgiving" messages from the company that included a request that the employees check their e-mails at 5 AM on December 2. The 5 AM e-mail told the recipients to call a toll free number at either 8AM or 8:30AM. Those calling at 8AM were told they were still employees of the company and the 1700 employees who called at 8:30 were told they were no longer employees and should leave their desks immediately. A spokesman for the company, skilled in the art of understatement, said "We acknowledged in the call that delivering this news on a teleconference wasn’t ideal but given the scope and scale of the reductions, there was no other way to share this news quickly and consistently." That seems a bit odd since it has had plenty of experience with laying people off and it would seem it might have discovered a better way to do it. In April 2010, following the Easter weekend, it sent an e-mail to 400 of its employees notifying them that they were being fired. In doing that it was following the tradition it had started at Thanksgiving time in 2008 when it fired a number of its employees. It also took advantage of the July 4, 2009 weekend to rid itself of chaff, and again at Thanksgiving that same year when it fired 750 employees. It took advantage of the 2009-holiday season to fire many of its contract pharmaceutical sales reps. Those who work at Sanofi are probably grateful that there are not more holidays. UBS employees are probably grateful that all they got in anticipation of the holiday season was a 43-page book telling them how to dress.

In a tract, whose guidelines bring to mind the blue suit-white shirt days at IBM, UBS has established appearance guidelines for its Swiss retail banking staff. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the intent is to "-re-establish confidence in the Swiss bank’s brand and mending relations with clients." Re-established confidence was needed following recent news about the bank’s finances. In the fourth quarter the outflow from the bank of the "Wealth Management and Swiss Bank" division was Sfr. 33 billion. The "Wealth Management Americas" division lost Sfr.12 billion and the "Global Asset Management division had an outflow of Sfr. 11 billion. UBS also paid a $780 million fine imposed by the IRS under a deferred-prosecution agreement entered into in 2009. Any bank confronted with such problems was smart to try to regain public support by having its employees dress nicely and look good. The 43-page book is clearly the solution. Here are some of its suggestions and just reading them makes me want to go and open an account there.

Employees are told to wear suits in dark grey, black or navy blue since these colors "symbolize competence, formalism and sobriety." (Women often wear bright reds, pinks, blues, and other colors that inspire in the on-looker feelings of frivolity not usually associated with banking.) Women are advised that "light makeup consisting of foundation, mascara and discreet lipstick . . . will enhance your personality." The book says both men and women can increase their popularity with well cared for hair and a stylish haircut. Men are told that underwear should be of good quality and easily washable but be undetectable. It is not clear in what circumstances the bank’s customers would be privy to male employees’ skivvies although it is possible that in the super secret vaults access to things other than bank boxes may take place.

In recognition of the importance to the Swiss of wristwatches, employees are encouraged to wear wristwatches. Wrist watches, says the booklet, suggest "reliability and great care for punctuality." Older employees are told coloring hair to retain a youthful appearance is a mistake since youthful hair and aged skin are a poor match and don’t fool anyone.

A spokesman for the bank said the guidelines might appear very detailed, and "in line with Swiss precision" an observation with which most readers would agree. Some might even call them anal. Whatever you call them, they are a lot better than the e-mails received by Sanofi workers telling them they were no longer employed by anyone.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.