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Monday, Dec 4, 2023

Ridiculous Rules


Every now and then, some large American corporation does something so stupid that it reminds you all over again that the people who run them should be regarded as guilty until proven innocent.

The most recent crime against common sense was committed by the bosses of Alliance Capital Management Holding LP in New York, when they issued their employees a little booklet telling them how to behave. A copy of this book now sits on my desk, where it continues to startle anyone who happens upon it.

“Dress shirts should always be neatly pressed, long sleeved, and made of an opaque fabric,” it begins. “Ties,” it continues, “should coordinate with a shirt (and) should be long enough to reach the tip of your belt.”

From there, the book, which could be titled “The Alliance Capital Rules for Life,” only gets better, or worse, depending on whether you are an outsider looking in or an Alliance Capital employee who has been asked to conform.

The manual contains sections entitled “Appropriate Conversations,” “Telephone Etiquette,” “Restroom Behavior” and “Elevator Etiquette.” It offers a short treatise on “Basic Hygiene,” in which the authorities at Alliance Capital remind their underlings that “while we do not think twice about using deodorant or antiperspirant every morning, we may not think about lingering food odors.”

There is a disquisition on “Annoying Habits” in which employees learn that “seemingly innocuous habits such as rocking back and forth, playing with hair, or constantly adjusting clothing can be detrimental to professional image.”

How to fly

On and on it goes, reaching even into the employee’s life outside the office. On airplanes, for instance, “if the person in the seat next to you wants to engage in conversation, and you do not want to speak with him or her, explain politely that you would like to read, sleep or work.”

Truly, a breathtaking performance. The management of Alliance Capital must set some sort of land speed record for being out of step with the times. Reading their booklet, I found my mind drifting back to the 1950s TV sitcoms in which a beleaguered organization man chases around after his boss, lips a-pucker. That character, if he ever existed in real life, might have taken an etiquette manual from the boss to heart. But who in our times stands to benefit from such a work?

The obvious answer the employees of Alliance Capital could not possibly be right. Think about it: If you were an employee of a company in the year 2000 and your boss gave you a little book telling you never to eat onions for lunch and always to wash up after you pee, what would be your response?

Recent history shows that the main effect of any attempt to discipline Wall Street Man will be to cause him to rebel. Perhaps there are still a few constipated souls on Wall Street who would say, “Finally, we have someone in charge who can make the people around me behave like real professionals!” But I’ll bet most everyone else would say, “Screw you, I’m going to eat twice the number of onions, then pee in my pants, and when I’m finished, if the spirit moves me, go to work for your competition.”

If the audience for this book is not the employees, it must be the customers the pension funds and so on who pay Alliance Capital to manage their money. Presumably these people will be pleased to know that on their rare visits to Alliance Capital they won’t be greeted by employees in gauzy shirts with stumpy ties dangling between their exposed nipples, who make unseemly jokes in meetings and unpleasant grunts in the rest rooms. Maybe that is the point. Money management is not supposed to be interesting, it is supposed to be careful, and the people who do it should exude a similar carefulness.

Possible reactions

But, again, think about it: If you have put your money into Alliance Capital’s hands, does the knowledge that management feels that its employees need to be told to wash after they pee make you feel better or worse? If it were my money, I’d feel worse and not about the employees. About the management.

Specifically, I’d wonder if they were aware that those creatures they purport to manage work in the most open labor market on the planet, and that, if hounded about the petty details of their daily lives, the best of them will simply pick up and take their talents elsewhere. A firm is a lot less likely to attract great money managers if the money managers are also required to wash after they pee. Indeed, it’s a known fact that a lot of great money managers have neglected to wash after they pee. But that fact alone has done nothing to alter their performance.

And so in the end, the Alliance Capital etiquette book is without an audience. Those few who read it from cover to cover will have a reaction that is the opposite of the one intended.

Employees and outsiders who happen to see it will assume that the people who run Alliance Capital are boobs. It’s a pity they don’t have manuals to fix that.

Michael Lewis, the author of “Liar’s Poker” and “The New New Thing,” is a columnist for Bloomberg News.

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