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What the Goldman Sachs Letter Was Really About

One of the highlights of my reading this week was the resignation letter published in the New York Times by Greg Smith, a promising young executive with Goldman Sachs who decided he had had enough with a corporate culture he felt had devolved to the point that he had to get out.  And he thought it necessary to share this with millions of readers the world over.

I read the letter, the rebuttal from Goldman Sachs and some of the online commentary.  I have to say, I found it all fascinating and terrifying.

Fascinating, because a single individual was given a global platform to indict one of Wall Street’s most revered brands.  It’s one thing for a person to post such a letter on the web – that happens all the time.  What was it about this person, this letter, this company that led the Times to provide the writer with one of the world’s biggest bullhorns?  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that discussion by the Editorial Board – much less the office of the General Counsel.

Terrifying, because in today’s digital world, given the right circumstances, a single person has the power to destroy a brand by writing what is essentially an opinion piece disguised as a letter of resignation.  Or maybe disguised as a job application, as some have suggested.  I have no clue whether Mr. Smith’s accusations have any merit.  How could I?  But reading through the comments associated with the piece, most people believed every word he said.

I found Goldman’s response predictable and weak.  But with accusations like these, what can one say?  Who has a worse job at Goldman’s than the poor soul who had to draft that statement?  What are your choices?  He’s a disgruntled employee.  It’s just a few bad apples.  We’re not as bad as our competitors.

As with all things digital, I wonder about the long-term impact of this kind of thing.  Can one letter really kill the company’s entire campus recruiting effort, as some have suggested?  I read a quote from a young person who said he was so disillusioned by the letter he decided not to apply for a job at Goldman but instead has decided to pursue his passion for the theatre.  Honestly?  Was that guy really going to Goldman Sachs?

The only thing I know for certain is that it is harder and harder for people, corporations, institutions, governments, etc. to cultivate and maintain a benevolent image while behaving in the exact opposite way from their supposed values.  To be sure, they can do it for a while.  In fact, some have raised it to an art form.  But sooner or later, someone with a good internet connection and a flair for writing can bring the whole thing crashing down.

And by and large, I think this is probably a good thing.

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