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Hard choices

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Some unidentified genius recently coined the term “Tinkerbelle economics.” It’s the philosophy that says the financial markets would be healthy right now if everyone would just believe they’re healthy.

Sadly, as we all just learned, wealth in the financial marketplace has to be backed by real assets or it goes away, Tinkerbelle notwithstanding. Hidden somewhere deep inside the most arcane, securitized, credit-default-swapped mortgage-backed derivatives are real houses — assets which, when they lose value, destroy the card-houses built upon them.

Investors, though, are good at finding new assets that do have value — whether real or Tinkerbelle doesn’t matter, at least for awhile.

So when you see the DJIA finding its floor, it means investors are figuring out where to put their money. It doesn’t mean the economy of employment, production, and purchase of real goods and services has found its floor.

It hasn’t. In a healthy economy, employment drives spending, which drives production, which drives more employment. This cycle drives just as well backward as forward, though, and when economic growth is a Tinkerbelle nobody believes in, less employment drives less spending, driving less production, driving less employment.

It’s basic economics — the discipline Thomas Carlyle called “the dismal science,” although it’s far less dismal than the exercise most readers of this column are going through at the moment — either preparing for a large round of layoffs or dealing with the aftermath.

Layoffs are about hard choices — hard enough that when deciding who stays and who goes, your employee rankings just might prove to be worth less than worthless. Here’s why:

Compare two IT professionals. One can look at situations creatively, working actively with business leaders to turn a new idea into a new reality. The other knows how everything you have is put together and knows how to go in efficiently to tweak things, fix small bugs as they’re discovered, make minor enhancements, and in general keep things running.

In the normal course of events, if you had to rank the two employees, you’d think in terms of the marketplace and career potential, probably giving the first employee a higher rank.

This isn’t the normal course of events. If you’re preparing a round of layoffs, it probably means your company has decided to adopt a defensive posture — to ride things out until the economy improves, rather than take the risk of trying to aggressively exploit the defensive postures of your competitors. Defense usually leads to shutting down most big development and integration projects or putting them on hold until the time again comes for the business to pursue expansion opportunities.

As usual, “best” really means “best fit.” In your new circumstances, the maintenance programmer is starting to look a whole lot more attractive.

You’re going to have to re-rank your employees. Most won’t be affected by the exercise too much. There are some, though …

There is, for example, the sysadmin known as PiN, as in Pain in Neck. You know who I’m talking about — the guy who communes with the servers and can bring a failed one back on line by placing his hands on each side of the box and coaxing it.

He’s also the one who loudly declares staff meetings to be wastes of time, IT’s standard operating procedures to be wastes of storage, and most of his co-workers to be wastes of carbon.

Under normal circumstances you’d rank this character near the bottom, make it clear his future depends on his ability to work and play well with other human beings, not just with technology, and consider terminating him as a gift to the rest of the team.

Now? Now, you just might decide your best choice is this unlovely alternative: You’re going to offer PiN a bribe. To wit:

“This is your lucky day. Right now, we need your technical skills more than we need to get rid of your personality. On the other hand, I’m going to be too busy to deal with any more complaints about you.

“So here’s the deal: Every month end, if I haven’t heard any new complaints about you, you’ll get a check for $1,540 — that’s a thousand bucks after taxes. The deal is good for a year. But it’s for no complaints at all. Period.

In a year, you can explain that now PiN has no excuses. He’s proved he can behave decently when he chooses to.

Or, you might figure he’s worth more money now, and make the deal permanent.