It’s not every day someone publicly quits his job in The New York Times. But Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs employee, just did — excoriating the firm he had worked in for 12 years and slamming the door on his way out. The op-ed is inspiring satirical charts and hilarious parodies (“Why I’m Leaving the Empire, by Darth Vader”), and is trending globally on Twitter. Happy first official day, Richard Siewart, Jr.
The op-ed criticizes Goldman’s management for putting profits before clients, calling customers “muppets” and creating a culture that is different from the firm’s traditional ethos. Goldman responded to the report by telling The New York Times that it disagrees “with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business. In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.” The firm confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that Greg Smith resigned on Wednesday morning.
I’ll leave it to others to determine how much of Smith’s opinion piece reflects the actual global culture at Goldman. What interests me is the viral response of the letter, which has lit up the Twittersphere and sparked discussion around the world. Surely, a good deal of the interest probably has to do with Smith’s surprisingly public resignation from a firm with such a tight-lipped culture, and the extent to which Goldman has been held up, unfairly or not, as one of the bogeymen of the mortgage and financial crisis.
But I think the overwhelming response to Smith’s letter has just as much to do with the fascination people have with telling off their boss on the way out the door. Smith joins the goldfish-scooping Jerry Maguire (“Who’s coming with me?”), American Beauty’s Lester Burnham (“I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose”), and Office Space’s Joanna (“there’s me expressing my flair!”) in the canon of fantasy job exits.
Such out-in-a-blaze-of-glory stories don’t just exist in the movies. There’s the story of Joe Sale, a marketing consultant with LivingSocial who sent his business cards back to management in a trash bag and told the world on Facebook. Or who can forget JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater, who jumped out of an airplane chute with a beer in his hand after delivering expletive-laden comments over the plane’s loudspeaker?
Of course, most people—especially in an economy like this one—would stop themselves before pulling the ejector chute, literally or figuratively, in such outrageous fashion. But that doesn’t stop us from being all the more fascinated by those who do it. Maybe it’s because, with tools like Twitter and Facebook at our fingertips to broadcast our complaints to the world, the temptation for such a forbidden act is more tantalizing than ever. And surely, the still sluggish economy is having an effect. People increasingly are stressed out in their jobs, and asked to take on greater workloads as they do the jobs of more and more people.
Most of all, when someone does head for the exit so publicly, it seems to tap our collective need to vent about the jobs we can’t gripe about publicly in real life. Given how few jobs are out there for less daring employees—much less those whose resignation stories could hurt their chances for future employment—the stakes are too high. But when Steve Slater slides down a plane’s emergency exit, or Greg Smith puts his resignation letter in The New York Times, the rest of us can vicariously experience the thrill of venting all those pent-up frustrations without taking any risk ourselves.
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