Not exactly SF, but pretty fucking Orwellian just the same.

I had dinner the other night with a friend of mine, a former investment banker and derivatives jock for the Toronto Dominion Bank. He grew sufficiently wealthy to retire years ago — while still in his thirties — and has since been managing hedge funds for widows and environmentalists to make up for his past life of crime.

Actually, more of that is true than you might expect. I’ve only taken one or two liberties; for example, when I say “retired” I mean “forced out in a palace coup”, and when I say “sufficiently wealthy” I mean “had so much dirt on so many higher-ups that they gave him a shitload of hush money on his way out the door.”

He had, you see, a low “Vulnerability Index”.

This is not just a piece of banker’s slang. This is an honest-to-god numerical index that TD calculates for every one of its employees; it is used to determine how egregiously they can afford to fuck their people over. There is a list, with a series of check boxes. If you have children, you get a check. If you have a mortgage, you get a check. (If you have a mortgage with the Toronto Dominion Bank, you get a whole lot of checks.) The greater the number of check marks, the more tightly TD has you by the balls.

I am very much poorer than my retired friend, but I imagine I would have a similarly low VI. I am not in debt. I have no dependents (at least, none that any corporate types would think to consider). I can — I have, on more than one occasion — given the finger to potentially lucrative (or at least stable) careers, walked away from jobs purely on principle. (The down side of this, of course, is that I don’t actually have a career; at least I’ve had the freedom to make my own choices on the way.)

But what about the poor assholes with three kids, up to their eyeballs in debt, who’ve just watched their retirement saving evaporate because TD’s American buddies played fast and loose with the global game of AD&D we call “the economy”? What about those people who simply can’t afford to walk away, no matter how badly they’re treated?

At the Toronto Dominion Bank, apparently, these are the people denied raises, regardless of the merit of their performance. These are the people expected to pick up the slack when the breeders go on mat leave, the folks expected to man the battlements during holidays because after all, it’s not as though you have family obligations to attend to. These are the people the bank knows it can shit all over, because they have a high Vulnerability Index.

No, I’m not that naïve. I’ve lost count of the similar tales I’ve heard from throughout the corporate ecosystem, so it doesn’t surprise me in the least that TD does this as well. What does blow me away, however, is the fact that they’ve so unabashedly quantified their exploits; that they’ve turned backroom policy into explicit statistical technique; that they have derived an index of abuse with the same rigor and enthusiasm they use to calculate derivatives. They remind me of those concentration camp dooves back in World War Two1, so scrupulously documenting every atrocity without a moment’s thought that You know, if things go south some of this shit could be used as evidence…

And if TD is doing it, you can be damn sure every other bank in the country has got their own little formula feeding their own in-house databases. Makes me glad I keep my money with the small fry.

Apropos of nothing, really. I just thought some of you might like to know.



1 Yeah, I know. Fuck Godwin’s Law. He can start his own blog if he doesn’t like it.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday June 22 2009at 08:06 am , filed under economics, rant . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

20 Responses to “Not exactly SF, but pretty fucking Orwellian just the same.”

  1. The sick part if that, just after the outrage, my second thought (and it was very quick to come)? What kind of cool shit must that correlate with? And how much fun would it be plop the VI into a model as an independent variable.

  2. Maybe you’ve got some odd readers. A few seconds after reading this, I wondered if this gets applied to voters.

  3. reading your blog is worth it for the comments alone. well played sir, well played.

  4. This is sickening, and a little terrifying, but not surprising in any way.

  5. It always strikes me as funny when I remember my Industrial/Organizational psych classes how the lofty visions of the future always included personalized workspace temps, lighting and whatnot.

    I always thought to myself “what about the ruthless people who want to apply the evil side of IO psych to fucking over employees?” After all worker happiness doesn’t top anyone’s list of what makes a company successful and if you know to the decimal point exactly how little you can pay someone and how much crap you can dump on their life then you could squeeze more out of your employees.

    Just ask my boss.

  6. I don’t know why anyone would be surprised about this. All employers do this if even it is subconcious. Would you rather hire a 25 year old male with a family or a 25 year old male with no family? You may justify it by saying that the guy with the family is more grounded and is more responsible, but he is also the one that is less likely to quit on principle or because he didn’t get that raise.

    When you think about it, this is no different than how insuranmce companies determine your premiums.

  7. This reminds me of an article I was reading a while back, going on about the wonders of mapping the human genome, blah, blah blah, and there was something to the effect of “With your exact genetic profile in hand, your doctor will be able to prescribe the precise treatment for you”. The thought that crossed my mind at that point was, “No. This is what will determine whether you will ever be able to buy health insurance.”

  8. With some leaked internal documents and anonymous interviews, this could make a neat news story.

    It even sounds good. Come to think of it, it’s pretty rational.
    The bottom line indeed leads down there.

    I wonder if it’d run. Here, things get kept under the lid by threatening to withdraw advertising.

  9. Peter,

    Your rant is not consistent. First you say that people with children are the ones with high Vulnerability Indices who can be treated badly. Then in paragraph seven, you say that the vulnerable ones are those without family obligations, who are denied raises and forced to pick up the slack while “breeders” go off on holidays and cushy maternity leave. Which is it?

    Also, it is not clear why a TD employee who had his mortgage with the TD Bank would be especially in thrall to his employers (paragraph two). They don’t have the power to take his house away if he accepts a better job elsewhere. On the other hand, TD Bank has a mild disincentive to ever fire this employee, since they might stop receiving mortgage payments if he gets into financial difficulty.

  10. Richard Mason pointed out:

    First you say that people with children are the ones with high Vulnerability Indices who can be treated badly. Then in paragraph seven, you say that the vulnerable ones are those without family obligations, who are denied raises and forced to pick up the slack while “breeders” go off on holidays and cushy maternity leave. Which is it?

    Good point. It’s that first thing. The second was me pulling in an example from a separate industry (i.e. out of my ass) without thinking about it too much, which my gut said was morally equivalent because it involved management using personal data to manipulate employees.

    Also, it is not clear why a TD employee who had his mortgage with the TD Bank would be especially in thrall to his employers. They don’t have the power to take his house away if he accepts a better job elsewhere.

    They’ve got a decided advantage when it comes to setting the conditions of that mortgage; they know every card he’s holding, and they know exactly if/when his financial situation changes. Hell, they can be the ones to change his financial situation, should it suit them.

  11. Sorry, can’t share your outrage.
    Probably because the rule of “vulnerable people are vulnerable, and by being vulnerable they provide vulnerabilities for others to exploit” is seated so deep in my mind that quantifying someone’s vulnerability appears a trivial thing to do (you know A is vulnerable, so why not go and see how vulnerable he is?).

    Probably because I know that everything that can be used to help A can be used to curbstomp him (After all, one is not obliged to use VI for curbstomping… It’s just that using it in such a manner makes so much sense)

    Or maybe I am just too sociopathic to care 😉

  12. This scare scenario works much better if you replace “mortgage” with “credit card.” Credit card issuers are the ones known for making arbitrary changes in conditions, based on information gleaned in Orwellian ways, and they could let an employer know lots of things about what the employee does with his time.

    I’ve never heard of a mortgage where the conditions could change at the whim of the lender, even if the financial situation of the borrower materially changes. And the currently prevailing view of mortgage holders is not one of sinister masterminds, but of gullible doofuses, who are lucky if they know the address of the building they supposedly lent money to buy.

  13. Credit cards?
    There’s this anecdote that back when they were being rolled out, some bankers were reluctant to massively issuing them. They likened it to selling consumers rope to hang themselves with.

    The bottom line was more important in the long run.

  14. Point of clarification: You meant “parental leave”, not “mat leave”, right? You weren’t unfairly targeting women there… You were fairly targeting couples that feel the need to breed.
    Right?

  15. Seth: “After all worker happiness doesn’t top anyone’s list of what makes a company successful”

    Apparently it does top the list of Zappos CEO: http://www.inc.com/magazine/20090501/the-zappos-way-of-managing.html

  16. Meghan said

    …You meant “parental leave”, not “mat leave”, right? You weren’t unfairly targeting women there… You were fairly targeting couples that feel the need to breed. Right?

    Right. Sloppy old-school terminology on my part. (Although as Richard has pointed out, it wasn’t a very good example anyway…)

  17. Megan;

    He might have meant “parental leave”, but “mat leave” may still be a better fit for this particular rant. If the company in question offers top-up on maternity leave , but no top-up on parental leaves, you can bet that way more mothers than fathers will take leaves. We’d need to know what the company’s actual policies are – but without top-up for fathers, you could easily be down to 40% of your usual salary.

  18. Actually, the mat leave thing isn’t so contradictory. A company must offer mat leave, and generally a woman is going to need at least some time off. So if you think of “mat leave” as “time required to recover from childbirth” rather than “time to begin pair-bonding with progeny” then you can still have an Orwellian company exploiting everyone…

  19. Can someone create a link or somehow let me see one of these “Vulnerability Index” cards (or sheets; whatever they are called).

  20. Sorry, J: as I say, I only heard about this from a guy who used to work there. And you can be pretty sure that any institution engaging in such practices is not going to post such forms online.