Sunday, October 4, 2009

(No.56) In order to stab someone in the back ....

I derive some wry amusement from the fact that as a life insurance company employee, a 'salaryman' as the Japanese have it, as well as in my spare time an editor, writer and industry critic, I have been threatened with termination of my employment as well as with libel action by several life company CEOs.

These threats related to my publicly expressed views on industry issues as well as about various companies, views that in some fashion offended some senior executive's delicate sensibility. I have a letter somewhere written more than 25 years ago by a CEO (a fine man actually) warning me that my job was hanging by a thread. That thread turned out to have remarkable tensile strength.

If my transgressions against corporate propriety or bans on unlicensed expression escaped notice by those who from their lofty corporate perch might exercise their authority, I could always count on at least one or two of those who -- yesterday -- told me privately of their great admiration for my frank expression of views to point out -- today -- to senior management my high crimes and misdemeanours.

Disappointing and servile behaviour one may say but really not all that surprising. In order to stab someone in the back it is first necessary to get behind him. Like company gossip, such politically driven career management is in the mother's milk of corporate culture.

It still strikes me as beyond bizarre that for the past several years my employer has been Sun Life Financial, a solid company in many respects but one which I had regularly criticized editorially in the pages of my magazine the Canadian Journal of Life Insurance, a pattern of frank comment that I maintained within the company after it had taken over Clarica Life (the demutualized Mutual Life of Canada), my then employer.

I have remained faithful to this tradition since I began as my columns about Sun and the industry attest, including the intermittent series about Sun Life that I began recently with Nos. 50 & 52, the first two parts of a series I intend to continue whenever the spirit moves me.

In golden days long past I was (as I am still ready and happy to lay claim to have been) a vigorous public critic of the process by which Sun Life orchestrated its highly questionable move of its long-time Montreal head office to Toronto.

Had anyone asked me then how likely it was that I would (1) ever see the takeover of Mutual Life by Sun Life (both then being mutual companies), and (2) that if such an unlikely event were ever to occur that my employment would not only survive but continue in the form of an executive role with Sun Life while 1800+ good people found themselves on the street in the cost-cutting wake of that takeover, I would have put the odds on a par with those predicting the likelihood of Her Majesty The Queen appointing me Archbishop of Canterbury.

More in this vein in my next column.

Alastair Rickard