Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reflections on the firing of a CEO

The press has given extensive coverage to the recent firing of Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo. To be precise, not to the firing as such -- a common enough event even for CEOs -- but to Ms. Bartz' open admission, in an e-mail to all Yahoo employees, that "I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's chairman of the board." This breach of etiquette earned her a rebuke from Jennifer Chatman, professor of corporate management at the University of California, Berkeley.

Another commentator, Alexander Chancellor (Guardian Weekly, 9.16.11), is more sympathetic. His protest too is not aimed at the firing itself, which for him is clearly no big deal ("I've been fired lots of times"), but at the "insult" of its delivery by phone rather than face to face.

Whether CEOs should be considered members of the working class is a moot point for socialists. Although they are employees and as such can be fired by their employers like any other employees, their high earnings (including business expenses, bonuses and stock options) enable them to accumulate enough wealth to climb out of the working class by reaching the point where they no longer NEED to find employment in order to satisfy their needs. Unless, I suppose, the extravagance of their lifestyle matches their earnings.

I suspect that the emphasis on HOW one is fired is a way of avoiding the main issue. Being fired is bound to feel humiliating, however politely it may be done. Especially for a high-level manager who identifies with the company and is used to being treated as a colleague in an enterprise of which he or she is part. Even if a CEO has saved enough not to have to worry about making ends meet for the rest of his or her life, the experience of being fired is a shock that dispels long-cultivated illusions and suddenly reveals the stark reality of the underlying power relationship. Like all the lesser employees that YOU have fired (on behalf of the boss), you too are no more than a dispensable tool in someone else's hand.

Surely at some level the CEO must have been fully aware all along that this is so. But it is not legitimate to object to being fired as such, as that would be tantamount to objecting to the employment relationship itself -- that is, to capitalism. It is an essential prerogative of the employer to hire and fire. So anger at the humiliation of being fired is diverted to side issues.

Socialists are opposed on principle to employment ("jobs") as an inherently oppressive and humiliating institution. We do not demand that the government create new jobs, nor do we proclaim that having a job is a right. We demand the right to a livelihood and the opportunity to do useful work for society without having to get a job. That is, without having to put ourselves in a situation that exposes us to the risk of some employer subjecting us to the humiliation of being fired.