Would you hire any of these people? (Or, what was your biggest mistake at work?)

Bear Stearns wrote down at least $3B & lost $19B in capitalization.
BoA wrote down $4.4B
Royal Bank of Scotland (staffed by people who keep their cool in stalled gondolas) wrote down $3.6B
Citigroup: $36B
Merrill Lynch: $32B
Wells Fargo: $2.9B

Hedge funds have gone down in flames; many AAA-rated bonds now have junk status. Many homebuilders reporting losses; some going bankrupt. Mortgage brokers & realtors out on the streets (some with their own sub-prime / Alt-A mortgages). Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I get all stressed out when I’m two weeks late on a six-month project. The worst thing I’ve ever done at work (that can be quantified) was, through lack of timely communication, causing my company to lose about 20 man-hours of work and about $10K. (Progress came to a halt for about four hours in a lab that cost $2500/hr).

But these people. They shot for the stars! How do you go to work in the morning when your mistaken decisions have just lost people hundreds of millions of dollars overnight? What do you put on your resume? Or, if one of these people applied at your company, what would you think of them? Would it be, “Hey, no harm, no foul. It was a crazy time and if I were in your shoes I would have also run my company into the ground. How would you like to be head of our accounting depearment”?

And how, in this post-Enron day, did people working at financial institutions have a large fraction of their 401Ks in their own company’s stock?

I would guess that it comes with the territory. Granted, those were some monumental screwups, but I’d be surprised if there was a person working on Wall Street that had never lost any money.

And different jobs come with different risks. In journalism, for example, you sometimes make people angry, you sometimes offend people, you sometimes make mistakes, be they spelling errors or cutting off stories before they’re done. Those tend to not be job- or career-ending (though sometimes they are, or if there’s a pattern). Far more likely to earn you a quick trip out of the newsroom (or news altogether) are intentional actions like plagiarism or fabrication.

I’d imagine most careers are like that. It’s accepted that you’re going to run afoul of the risks associated with the job from time to time – surgeons will lose patients, fast-food workers will mess up orders, race car drivers will crash. The less you do those things, the higher-regarded you are, but it’s accepted that “mistakes will be made”. However, if you start intentionally doing the wrong thing, you’ll probably be canned pretty quickly.