Management Math Strikes Again!

Over the past twenty-plus years of my working in the Massachusetts high technology industry, I have learned a lot of things, some good, and some not-so-good. Among the things I consider to be not-so-good, is a dark, mysterious thing which I have decided to call “Management Math”.

Now, what the heck is Management Math? Well, it’s a set of mathematical principals and formulas which apparently are known only to top-level executives in the high technology business. Don’t go looking for it in any text books at the high school level. And don’t try to find it the old college bookstore either. It just isn’t there. No, it’s not taught to anyone, anywhere. And I’m sure it’s very existence will be denied by big-time executives. But it does exist, and there is proof. The latest piece of evidence which proves the existence of Management Math was in the December 6th edition of the Boston Globe, Business edition. And it’s not pretty. Read on.

For many years, the Polaroid corporation was one of the shining stars of the Massachusetts technology industry, right up there with Digital equipment corporation. (Who?) Maybe you have owned a Polaroid camera, or perhaps a pair of sunglasses with polarizing lenses. (For the record, it was Polaroid founder, Edwin Land, who discovered the polarizing light filter, thus the name “Polaroid”) I still have my old Polaroid “Swinger” camera in my closet. They stopped making film for it years ago, but I keep it “just because”. Polaroid had some very cool technology, and some of the best and brightest people in the business. I know this firsthand, because I spent three years working there, with those decent, bright people, as a temporary employee, (“Per Diem”, in their corporate lingo), from 1992, to 1995. I liked the job, and the people I worked with.

Today, the company is in a state of near ruin. Polaroid has been slashing jobs and reducing benefits for years. They are presently operating under chapter 11 bankruptcy, and trading of Polaroid stock was halted by the New York Stock Exchange when it got down to 28 cents per share. Benefits for retirees has been cut, including lifetime health insurance. (This means that many retired employees, are now “out in the cold” and in deep trouble). Employee morale is, to put it lightly, pretty bad. So, what do the company big shots want to do? Give themselves bonuses.

Yes, you read that correctly. “About 45” top level executives of the Polaroid corporation want to give themselves bonuses totaling over ten million dollars. And this is a terrific example of Management Math. A company is in dire trouble, even operating under bankruptcy. They have laid off thousands or people, and cut retirement benefits. And the head honchos want to give themselves bonuses. Does this make any sense to any logically thinking people? No, of course not. There are plenty of other examples, but this one is the latest and one of the best.

There is one little “fly in the Ointment” though: Since the company is operating under chapter 11, the plan to pay executives millions in bonuses has to be approved by the federal bankruptcy judge handling the case. Hopefully, that judge will do the right thing and say no. And if these executives want to leave the company because of it? Good riddance. Think about it for awhile. Put yourself in the position of one of the thousands of Polaroid employees who retired, and were counting on your retirement benefits for a decent life. Then, you are told that those benefits are being cut? And the ones doing the cutting want to give themselves bonuses? How does it feel? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

So, exactly how does one go about learning to do math like this? Where is this mysterious place, where one and one do not, necessarily equal two? I don’t know, but I have always speculated that it must be revealed to people when they join the ranks of upper management. Perhaps there is even some sort of ceremony involved. Maybe the ceremony involves the wearing of hooded robes and the use of jeweled daggers. Maybe at these ceremonies, the new executives are given strange calculators which have “secret management math functions” programmed into them. One can only speculate.

There are plenty of examples of Management Math at work. There’s the classic “1.5% raise, but you can work all the overtime you want” bit. That one goes hand-in-hand with the “we just laid off 20 per cent of our production floor staff, but we still have to meet our production quota” idea. And there’s always this popular one which is generally hatched in human resources offices: “From now on, all sick time, vacation time, and personal time, will be in your own “personal time bank”, for the convenience of all employees.” When you hear this one, it’s time to start looking for the exits. ( And why do HR departments always operate under such a shroud of secrecy? What are they protecting? )

I wonder where the working class of this country are going to wind up, ultimately. Thanks to Management Math, an honest, hardworking person will never have such a thing as “job security”. Such a person will have to be “on the lookout” for what’s going to happen next. But, I guess there’s two sides to an argument, aren’t there? Somewhere in an exclusive suburb, inside a “McMansion”, someone is probably saying this: “Tomorrow, we’ll be announcing the layoffs of a thousand people. So, my stock options will be going way up, and I’ll be getting a year-end bonus for “Controlling costs”. I’ll place my order for that new Mercedes”.

As for me, I’m on the lookout.

Bruce Black

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