10 Biggest Workplace Stories of 2014

by Derek Loosvelt | December 17, 2014

It was the year of distressed babies, flash boys, and underpaid women. It was the year of frozen eggs, racist statements, income inequality, and the openly gay CEO. It was the year that Wall Street got soft, and the year that an unknown schoolteacher in China who hatched a company in his tiny apartment became a multi-billionaire in the largest IPO in history. It was 2014. And here are your 10 biggest workplace stories of the year.

10. Michael Lewis Exposes Yet Another Dark Side of Wall Street and Says the Game is "Rigged" But Adds That Not All Wall Streeters Are Thieves and Liars
In March, the author of The Big Short and Liar's Poker published Flash Boys, his latest Wall Street evildoing exposé, which sheds light on a new set of shady Wall Street employees, giving Main Street a whole new type of suit to despise. However, as in most of Lewis's publications, there is a hero—and this time it's "a small group of Wall Street guys who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders [and] who band together and set out to reform the financial markets by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading will have no advantage whatsoever." Flash Boys, in addition to giving Lewis's Hollywood agent another book to shop, put high-frequency trading on the map, giving students, depending on their appetites, another finance career to avoid or choose from.

9. AOL CEO Shoves Wingtip in His Mouth By Blaming Costly Benefits on "Distressed Babies" Born to a Couple of AOL Employees
In February, in one of the more insensitive C-suite statements of 2014, Tim Armstrong publicly justified scaling back his firm’s 401(k) plan on rising health care costs like those associated with “two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure were O.K." Forbes did a bang up job interpreting Armstrong's statement: "Armstrong is effectively blaming extremely premature infants, who are clinging desperately to life, for the cuts he chose to make in his employees' retirement benefits. We're still paying to keep these precious little angels alive, he assured his employees. But if any of you are mad about your pay cut, you know who to blame." And one of the so-called distressed babies' mothers, the wife of an AOL employee, who turned out to be a novelist in between books, wrote an article for Slate entitled "My Baby and AOL's Bottom Line," which criticized Armstrong and was widely read and commented on and which went a long way toward spurring a helpful conversation about the lack of decent benefits for working mothers.

8. Apple and Facebook Offer Female Employees Egg Freezing Benefit Which Might Not Be A Benefit After All
The tech industry took a lot of heat in 2014 for its significant lack of female workers—and for good reason. It turns out that the industry is about as female-friendly as a Wall Street trading floor (remember this diversity data dump from 10 of the biggest companies in tech?). And In October, in order to be a little friendlier, Apple and Facebook announced that they'd start freezing female employees' eggs in what was supposed to be a very nice benefit to women—or was it? Blogging about this double-edged issue, Vault's Law Editor Nicole Weber summarized it very well: "The announcement this week from Apple and Facebook that they will offer egg freezing as a workplace benefit sparked a variety of mixed reactions, and understandably so. On the one hand such a move seems like major progress for workplace equality: Women can have it all, and if they are reaching a certain age and want to put pregnancy and child-rearing on hold, their employers will support them. On the other hand, how can the unveiling of these new 'perks' not be interpreted as an admission on the employers' part that it really is impossible for women to achieve maximum success professionally while starting a family—especially if they work for a company like Facebook or Apple? As in, 'we know that working here leaves you little time to even think about having kids, let alone see your spouse for dinner or explore the dating scene, so here’s $20,000 to put your eggs on ice in recognition of your sacrifice.'"

7. Two Former SAC Capital Traders Sentenced to Many Years Behind Bars for Insider Trading But the Man Who Put the SAC in SAC Capital Goes Free
In a Michael Lewis book waiting to happen, two big insider trading criminal cases went to trial and sentencing in 2014. In May, Ex-SAC trader Michael Steinberg was sentenced to three years in the slammer. And in September, in perhaps the most prominent insider case in history behind Raj Rajaratnam's, ex-SAC employee Mathew Martoma was slapped with nine years behind bars for his part in trading on material inside information related to trials involving an experimental Alzheimer drug. Meanwhile, Steinberg and Martoma's former boss, Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC, received no criminal charges, no prison time, but did receive the New Yorker and PBS treatment, and was forced to change the name of his hedge fund empire to Point72 Asset Management (after the firm's headquarters at 72 Cummings Point Road in Stamford, Conn.).

6. New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Says—At a Tech Conference for Women!—That Women Shouldn't Ask for Raises But Should Rather "Have Faith in the System"
In yet another underline underneath the gender wage gap and the male dominance of the tech industry, the man who took over the reins at Microsoft at the beginning of 2014 made perhaps the most asinine statement by any corporate CEO of the year, saying, more or less, that women should just keep their heads down and mouths shut and pray that the gender wage gap is narrowed—by their male managers! On the bright side (which is to say on the opposite of the dumb side), Satya's words did spur a much-needed public discussion about the gender wage gap and the lack of women in tech, not to mention the lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity on the part of men in tech. And, to his credit, Satya did apologized via Twitter—but only after about a million others tweeted about how out of touch, insensitive, and regressive his words were.

5. Tech Firm Alibaba Goes Public in the Biggest IPO in History and in the Process Creates Thousands of Millionaires Who Create Hundreds of New Tech Firms
There are, no doubt, millions upon millions of entrepreneurs and entrepreneur wannabees out there right now with dreams of being the next Jack Ma—the former English teacher from China who, a decade and a half ago in his little apartment in Hangzhou, started the e-commerce giant Alibaba, which this past September raised $25 billion in a record-setting IPO. The stock offering made its underwriters (many of Wall Street's largest firms) millions but, more important, made its shareholders—current and former employees—millions. Which means that there's now a whole lot of capital out there in play that could be creating the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Tech Billionaire.

4. The NBA Gives Los Angeles Clippers Owner the Death Sentence (A/K/A Bars Him from the League for Life ) Over Racist Comments While Also Hiring Its First-Ever Female Assistant Coach
In April, the man atop the Clippers franchise, Donald Sterling, was recorded as saying, among other racist things, to a former girlfriend, who had posted a photograph of herself with NBA legend (and African-American) Magic Johnson to her Instagram account: "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people … you don't have to have yourself with, walking with black people." After everyone and their mother's mother chimed in on the comments—President Obama called them "incredibly offensive racist statements" and said they pointed to the United States' struggle to "wrestle with the legacy of race and slavery and segregation"—Sterling was ultimately booted from the league and forced to sell the Clippers. Despite the news that one of the league's owners was a raving racist, there was much to celebrate in the NBA, which this year hired its first ever part-time female assistant coach and first-ever full-time female assistant coach. Also, the first openly gay athlete in a major professional sports league, Jason Collins, retired from the league in November. All of which underscored that the male-dominated NBA is no follower when it comes to combatting inequality in America and the American workplace, and is setting a decent example for all the young people across the planet that idolize so many of its employees.

3. Wall Street Firms Implement "Protected Saturdays" En Masse While Continuing to Battle With Silicon Valley Firms (In What Many Believe to Be a No-Win War for the Big Banks) for America's Best Young Talent
Wall Street has a problem. No, I'm not talking about the problem that Main Street thinks Wall Street is made up nothing but thieves and liars but the problem that young people no longer want to work 100-hour weeks for stodgy companies that are neither progressive nor cool nor changing the world for the better. That is, Wall Street is in a talent war with other industries, including, and especially, Silicon Valley, which is where most of the most talented young professionals are heading these days (whereas just a few years ago the so-called best of the best was indeed donning gray and blue worsted wool, French silk, and heading to the street called Wall). As a result, and in response to light being shed on the inhumane workplaces that Wall Street firms have cultivated for decades, something called the Protected Saturday became very popular during 2014. It was started by Goldman Sachs, which, say what you will about the firm, is the most innovative of the Wall Street giants and when Goldman Sachs acts, others follow. So, when Lloyd "Just Doin' God's Work" Blankfein told his young bankers they no longer have to work on Saturdays (or, at least, come into the office), other Wall Street firms did the same. Which means that now Protected Saturdays are a standard benefit in investment banking, just like free rides home and free dinners when working late during the week or on the weekends (that is, on Sundays). But the question still remains: Will this do much to attract talent away from the Googles, Amazons, and Apples of the world and bring them back to banking? I'll let you field that one.

2. French Economist Publishes the No. 1 Beach Read of the Summer Which Underscores, Outlines, and Supports With Facts the Fact That the Rich Are Getting Richer at the Expense of the Average Worker Who Is Getting Poorer and Poorer and to Boot Maybe Just Maybe Income Inequality and Not Income Equality Is the End Game of Capitalism
Published in April (on Tax Day!), Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which explains why the 1 percent possesses the majority of wealth and the 99 percent possesses next to nothing in comparison, became a sensation throughout the so-called free world during 2014. In fact, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called it the "book of the decade," Esquire called it the "book of the century," and according to the Economist, its author is nothing short of "a modern [Karl] Marx." Although Piketty's findings and hypotheses are still being argued (some believe he cooked his books a bit), as I wrote in May when blogging about the popularity of Capital it's hard to deny that "what Piketty presents will change forever how we talk about wealth and inequality, that it will further the fury that the Occupy Movement started, that it will perhaps cause boards and senior managers to rethink the way they pay top performers, and that it will invigorate regulators of Wall Street. Not to mention that it is the must read of 2014."

1. Apple CEO Tim Cook Comes Out And So Becomes the World's First Ever Openly Gay CEO Not to Mention the Most Powerful Openly Gay Person on the Planet
This year the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 turned 50 years old. The act outlawed "discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," and "effectively ended segregation in schools, workplaces, and public facilities." It was signed by President Lyndon Johnson and among those present for its signing was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose words were invoked in October by Tim Cook who wrote in a BusinessWeek column that he was "proud to be gay" and thus became the first openly gay CEO in history and thus opened the doors for scores of others (both inside and outside the C-suite) to follow in his steps as well as pave the way for the rise of more open and accepting workplaces everywhere. In perhaps the most moving paragraph of his column, Cook writes, "Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It's made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It's been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It's also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you're the CEO of Apple." As a footnote, although Cook's coming out was a giant step forward for workplace equality and for civil rights in the U.S. in general, if 2014 will be remembered for anything, it will be remembered as the year that its citizens were forced to look into the collective mirror and admit that while progress has been made in the area of equality since 1964, we still have a very, very long way to go.

Follow me @VaultFinance.

Read More:
Tim Cook Speaks Up (BusinessWeek)
The Rise of Supersalaries, Income Inequality, and Thomas Piketty's 'Capital'
Goldman Sachs’ ‘Protected Saturday’ Policy Might Be Working After All
Which Law Firms are Cashing in on the Donald Sterling Scandal?
Top 10 Tech Startups to Work For in NYC
October 22 to Be First Annual 'Women in Tech Ask For a Raise Day'
Egg Freezing Perk: Latest Proof That Women Can’t Have It All?
The Werewolf of Wall Street
What We Talk About When We Talk About AOL’s Distressed Babies
‘Flash Boys’ Author Michael Lewis: IT Geeks Shall Inherit the Street

Filed Under: Finance | Job Search | Salary & Benefits | Technology | Workplace Issues

Tags: alibaba | gender wage gap | income inequality | lgbt | protected saturdays

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