Is Goldman Sachs a Toxic Vampire Squid?

Is Goldman Sachs a fun place to work? Dunno. Do wolverines make good house pets?

Apparently, a former vice president at the legendary Wall Street firm thinks not. In an editorial in a recent New York Times, one Greg Smith claims that the culture is “toxic” and “destructive,” filled with “morally bankrupt” leaders.   Although Goldman has quickly trashed him, the news has exploded throughout the financial media, and sent the financial blogosphere into a frenzy.

I will leave the insider Wall Street gossip to Fortune, MarketWatch, and; they are better equipped to handle it than I. Plus, that isn’t our focus at Psychology at Work. Our focus is life in the modern workplace, and how to have a great career and fulfilling life, while finding – dare I say it? – meaning and happiness at the office.

I have never worked at Goldman, so I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I have no clue whether Goldman is the “vampire squid” that Rolling Stone magazine called it in an article some time back (July 9, 2009), or a kind and gentle place where traders play Frisbee between derivative sales and Labrador retrievers roam the halls. I do know, however, that every organization has a culture and an ethos than is tangible, and people are miserable if that ethos clashes with basic human values.

Even if true, Goldman was not always a vampire squid, according to Smith.  Here is how he describes the Goldman culture of the recent past: “It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.” In other words, it had a values structure that would be recognizable to your grandmother.

The best places to work are those that honor simple, universally valued things, like those your grandmother preached about. Places where people treat each other with trust, respect and dignity, and clients aren’t lied to. It doesn’t mean an organization has to sacrifice performance standards, or ignore economic realities. It doesn’t mean it isn’t full of opportunistic climbers. It need not be some Platonic utopia, but it doesn’t have to be a circle of Dante’s Hell.

Organizations are not designed to be moral actors, of course. When to it comes to a public American corporation, its purpose is to maximize shareholder value, and at times its decisions can cause a great deal of pain in people’s lives. But the financial and operational strategies of an organization are something very different than its values as expressed in its workplace environment.

I have written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point. Just remember this. People want to work at a place they respect, with people they like, where integrity and honesty are valued. People at work want to laugh, have fun, make friends. People don’t want something for nothing; they want a fair shake. “Treat me fairly, compensate me fairly, give me decent benefits. Give me the opportunity to grow. Don’t hide promotional opportunities from me.”

And keep the vampire squids away.