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Who Really Deserves to Be Laid Off?

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It's official: That first-quarter market rally was simply bizarre. The macroeconomic situation remains precarious at best, and plenty of companies are still performing mass layoffs in a marketplace that needs more jobs for workers, not more unemployed folks searching for work.

The U.S. unemployment rate is currently at a still very high 8.1%. That figure may be relatively improved from the worst of recent times, but it partially reflects a job market that has resulted in many Americans simply giving up on their job searches.

Only in the occasionally psychopathic world of investing could anyone see a headline about corporate layoffs and view that as possibly good news. Investors must stop shrugging off or even cheering for mass layoffs. Because the truth is, there's probably somebody else at that company who really deserves to be laid off.

Bulk pink slips
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently said the number of layoff events in the first quarter decreased by 28% on a year-over-year basis, such cheerful tidings don't mean the pain is over. There were still 1,077 mass layoffs last quarter.

Meanwhile, here's a rundown of companies that have recently announced plans to reduce their workforces:

No stranger to layoffs, Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) is reportedly planning to ditch a whopping 25,000 to 35,000 workers, or about 10% of its workforce.

General Mills (NYSE: GIS  ) is cutting 850 positions, or about 2.4% of its global workforce; about half of the lost positions will be from the company's Minneapolis headquarters. According to The Wall Street Journal, the move will result in "meaningful" cost savings in 2013, but no figure was given.

Last month, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) revealed plans to jettison 2,000 workers, or 14% of its workforce. Like HP, Yahoo! might want to buy its pink slips in bulk, since its workers have endured six rounds of job cuts since 2008.

Are layoffs really such a great idea?
Layoffs may boost profitability in the short term by cutting costs, but do they really work over the long haul? Investors ignore important long-term factors when corporate management teams decide to let go huge numbers of workers.

First of all, it's all too easy to let go of some brilliant intellectual capital when wielding the ax from the top. Do managements always even know who the best workers are?

In his book Iconoclast, neuroeconomist Gregory Berns revealed a common pitfall of companies valuing "good presentation" rather than the truly good ideas. In other words, people with the slickest presentation skills gained more attention for their ideas than individuals who had in fact come up with the best ideas and simply presented them poorly.

Mass layoffs can cause terrible strife over the long haul, not just because of lost talent but also because of these events' impacts on workers who don't get laid off. They may feel more pressure to perform, have less incentive to think outside the box, and suffer from survivor guilt.

How's that working out for you?
These may sound like touchy-feely intangibles, but CNN recently took a look at whether multiple rounds of tech layoffs have done much for corporate performance. In many cases, they haven't done a darn thing for the companies in question.

Not surprisingly, HP's last two rounds of layoffs haven't helped that long-struggling company. The stock's down 53% and the company has lost market share and suffered from lower profits.

Look at Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) . There was good reason to argue that slashing its workforce wasn't going to help a company that was struggling to innovate, compete with, and even keep up with rivals in the smartphone market like Apple and Google. Sure enough, the stock's down 58%.

Last year, Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) cut 7,500 jobs in two rounds of layoffs. How's that worked out so far? The stock's down 61%, and speaking of slashing, its debt was recently slashed to "junk" status.

Who really deserves to be let go?
Sometimes companies really are forced to cut their workforces in order to survive financially. However, in too many cases, it's arguable that corporate managements use the investor-condoned "mass layoff" as a short-term profitability booster that really could gut a company's ongoing competitiveness.

Investors need to stop viewing mass layoffs as possibly a positive and view such actions as a negative. Management very likely made serious strategic mistakes of some kind.

And here's a thought. Investors may want to consider the idea that the real problem resides with corporate managements and boards. Look at Hewlett-Packard and its bumbling board of directors, which has repeatedly doled out millions of dollars for failed corporate leaders.

Speaking of Yahoo!, now-former CEO Scott Thompson recently resigned from his post after only four months after it turned out his resume included false statements (as did company filings). Apparently nobody checked to see if his qualifications were true. (Patti Hart, the Yahoo! director who led the CEO search committee, did step down.)

Think about it, investors. In many cases, who really deserves to be let go? Chief executive officers make the big bucks because their positions are supposed to be at risk if failure occurs. Boards of directors are charged with protecting long-term shareholder interests. Investors have viewed mass layoffs far too kindly for far too long.

Check back at every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's column on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Yahoo!, Google, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and Google, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (33) | Recommend This Article (38)

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  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 5:29 PM, TMFNewCow wrote:

    Cue HP's after hours +11% rally, final tally: 27,000.

    -- Evan

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 5:53 PM, srwm4 wrote:

    So a company who has seen demand shrink ought to have just as many workers at the valley as they did at the peak? If you aren't selling as many units, then you don't need as many people making them. This is why France has such high youth unemployment - because companies are forced to maintain roughly the same level of employment regardless of economic realities, so companies just refuse to hire anybody during the booms, because they know that booms don't last forever, and they don't want to have an over-staffed company during the inevitable busts.

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 6:17 PM, xetn wrote:

    Managers should hire and keep someone for their contribution to earnings in excess of their cost. Any thing less than that should be grounds for the dismissal of the manager for wasting company assets.

    As for the level of unemployment, the real figures are much higher than the "official' numbers which continually get "massaged" to make them look better.

    Based on the way the stat was originally calculated, the rate:

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 6:31 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    Evan, yeah, 11% rally is just what I'm talking about. (Hadn't seen that update yet.) 27,000 isn't as awful as was rumored, but still significant.

    srwm4, I see it oppositely than what you mention though -- there is a need to stop irresponsibly playing into booms. Do some managements even overhire with the mind that if the growth doesn't work out, they'll just cut fat later? Bubbles are unsustainable and somehow, corporate managements, Fed Reserve, and government didn't SEE the housing bubble, and that was a BIG one. I'd venture to guess few were being responsible in their fiscal strategies (including government!) even, yes, knowing that busts DO happen. (I suppose we could dig even further into this and talk about the role of the Fed Reserve in the boom/bust cycles, but that's getting off the track.)

    I think the point I'm making is management should better handle these long-term strategic issues instead of playing into short-term trends for perception NOW. We'd avoid a lot of pain that way. A lot of the supposed "growth" we experience in bubbles is completely unsustainable and then we end up where we are now. (And another point I'm trying to make in the article is that management should be held far more financially and otherwise accountable, as should directors. Given the amount squandered on CEO pay at many companies, I don't believe CEOs should also be incentivized to further slash workforces. A little shared sacrifice in situations like this would be nice.)

    And again, I don't believe we investors shouldn't cheer/encourage this kind of cost cutting. There's probably a lot of intellectual capital being lost, and further, those "costs" saved actually do represent many people's financial well being. Unlike, say, the CEO, many probably weren't pulling in millions to sock away for a rainy day.



  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 7:47 PM, srwm4 wrote:


    If 1 person can make 100 widgets per day, then the company needs n = #WdgetsSold/WorkDays/100 employees. So when consumers want more widgets, companies are forced to hire more workers. (Yes, forced; companies don't want to have to hire someone if they don't have to - that's not an investment, it's waste.)

    When demand slows, the workers become unnecessary, and are disposed of. At the end of the day, companies exist to create profits, not jobs - jobs are merely a byproduct of profits. HP is not the reincarnation of the Public Works Administration. If employees are creating a negative return on investment for employers, then they should be divested of. If these people have failed to realize that we're in a tough economy and that they are vulnerable to layoffs, then it's their own error in judgement if they have not hoarded cash in anticipation of this.

    Should managers fight tooth and nail to keep the best of their employees? Absolutely. But ultimately it really doesn't matter how good Joe is at making buggy whips if nobody in the world actually wants to buy a buggy whip anymore. We see massive swings in tech companies in particular because of the speed of obsolescence. The degree to which institutional knowledge is important has gotten considerably smaller.

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 8:27 PM, marei wrote:

    You get fired because of your own dishonesty and/or incompetence. You get laid off because of someone else's dishonesty and/or incompetence.--Tom Reilly

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 9:59 PM, wolves83 wrote:

    True, companies do exist to make a profit. But if the CEO's and people who make decisions realize the down-the-line effect of layoffs, then they would do everything in their power to keep every worker.

    It's simple economics. I buy this thing from this person, that person now has money to buy something from somebody else, and so on. Well, if I get laid off I no longer have money to buy things. The person who would have got my cash via purchases doesn't get money either. Short term gains lead to long term pain. It's amazing to me how many people don't realize that.

    And for all intensive purposes, the 40 hour work week is dead. The sooner we realize that, the happier I will be.

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 10:39 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    Layoffs are a short term solution, with possible long term consequences.

    When I see a company announcing layoffs, I ask "who is being "fired."" It's an important question. For example, if MCD announced a layoff of hourly workers, would that have any significance to the ability of the company to generate a long term profit? I say "no" because the entry skill level required for MCD workers is low. Of course, these workers must have a reasonable work ethic; i.e. the boss shouldn't have to call them to get them out of bed each morning, and they should provide useful (authentic) work for the entire duration of their shift.

    This is not necessarily so in the "real world."

    As a comparison, when the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announces layoffs because of federal "budget cuts" that's a big deal.

    Some people, including our president and congress, have a great deal of difficulty creating this distinction. But of course, they have enlarged self esteems and consider their "self worth" to be significantly greater.

    So too for many of the CEOs of many of America's best companies.

    The question posed by this article "Who deserves to be laid off?" is interesting. Here's a question for the author. Since when is life supposed to be fair? "Bad things" happen to people every day. Very young children are diagnosed with cancer at the age of 5 and die. Hard working people go broke, and good companies fail. Good people die young, and the families of politicians thrive, even when their convicted felons are in prison.

    My point is, what is the line of questioning? Where are we going with this inquiry?

    If the author wants to convince me that "life is unfair" well, here is my retort "God loves us but the universe does not care."

  • Report this Comment On May 23, 2012, at 10:44 PM, BuyloPESellHiPE wrote:

    No one deserves to be laid off; although it is the company's perogative. If the person works with a constant attitude of adding value to his/her company, then there is little chance that the person would be laid off and chances are he/she would end up with a better offer with another company rather quickly.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 4:00 AM, lowmaple wrote:

    Darwood. Terrible things happen to people but that doesn't mean you should be careless about layoffs.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 7:07 AM, dharma44 wrote:

    Corporations ought to focus upon the development or their product or service. Profits will follow. If a corporate exec. or management found themselves undomiciled and penniless they would not have been so cavalier about layoffs. Many workers can no longer save enough money for a rainy day.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 11:44 AM, steambootjohn wrote:

    A great example of the point of this article would be a comparison of the performances of Best Buy and Circuit City. One paid the CEO $8 Mil and during a downturn laid off all floor people earning over $12 hr and the other paid the CEO $4 mil and hired many of the highly competent sales people. Guess which one went out of business?

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 1:50 PM, wasmick wrote:

    "A great example of the point of this article would be a comparison of the performances of Best Buy and Circuit City. Guess which one went out of business?"


    Oh, sorry I answered too early. Check back in a couple of years.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 1:58 PM, atkinskd wrote:

    as someone who's been laidoff due to gross managerial incomeptence I agree with Alyce. Unfortunately the overinflated egos at the top can do no wrong and as such yes a great deal of talent is lost on the 1st swing, then attrition sets in as those who have the skills to move see the writing on the wall, last the left behinds are focused on 'empty paint cans' to survive rather than taking initiative to innovate. Net result is a gross loss of invaluable talent and tribal knowledge. Like it or not the folks on the front line are where the premier cost saving innovations come from thus value for the stockholders. Dislocated management hasn't a clue. Check out Lincoln Electric for an all star shareholder/employee model.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 2:12 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    Thanks for all the comments and thoughts, everyone!

    atkinskd, thanks for your note and your mention of Lincoln Electric. It has a no-layoff policy, as my colleague Brian Richards noted in this awesome piece last year:

    It is an all star model, and more corporations should function that way.

    (If I'm not mistaken, Wegman's is another company that has a no-layoff policy, although it's not publicly traded.)

    Much of my point is about the idea of more "shared fate" across the board and responsible stewardship at the top. Of course life isn't fair (I've also been laid off in my life, and did understand why it had to happen at the time-- and also had a manager who made his own major sacrifice that I respected GREATLY), but the best management teams/boards shouldn't allow life to be more "fair" for some (like high-ranking executives their huge pay packages) than others. (And let's face it, corporate managements are very rarely sent out on their ears and then told, "sorry, life's not fair" -- massive golden parachutes, etc...)



  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 2:18 PM, profittkr wrote:

    The elephant in the room is the politics involved in a layoff. By the time you get down to the manager who decides who stays or goes, you are often far removed from those working the balance sheet. The team leads keep their friends, their drinking buddies, slugs they brought with them from the last job, the girl w/the killer boobs, etc. Out go the folks making the most, usually regardless of why they were paid more, since remaining headcount is power. You see it all at GE. Especially since they make sure to do thei layoffs in waves to stay out of the news...unless they are in deep do-do and need to show the street they are cutting. One day the clowns had 2 management groups walking around - one was handing out crystal bowls to everyone as awards, the other was doling out pink slips. Priceless.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 4:58 PM, BMFPitt wrote:


    There's a big difference between widget-making and knowledge work. And even with some simple jobs, frictional costs of hiring a new employee can add up to the cost of 3-12 months of retaining one. Not to mention the premium that you'd have to pay if you had a reputation for perpetual lay-offs.

    If you really have a bunch of jobs where the workload is in constant flux and there is little to no training needed, you should probably just be subbing it out.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 8:23 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Well. First let me say that I'm no apologist for unions -- nor am I blind to all the things they have done wrong (and the list is long). But look, there was a time when a layoff was known to be temporary. When business picked up, you could count on being called back. There were other possible courses of action to deal with flagging demand, such as a cut in hours. These things were mandated by contracts.

    Now we know this is the end of the road for these workers, regardless of how diligent or productive they were. We also know that their chances of being hired elsewhere for a similar job at a comparable wage are not wonderful -- and this is true even for the ones who were genuinely good at their jobs. Is this really a beneficial development, or a fair one? You can only think so if you believe you will never be on the receiving end of such treatment, and that it ultimately won't affect you or your investments. Dream on.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 8:26 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    To profittkr, so true. It is hard to believe how much depends on office politics -- you would never think that so-called "market discipline" could be so weak.

  • Report this Comment On May 24, 2012, at 9:47 PM, msteg01 wrote:

    The biggest problem after a layoff is that people turn in and start focusing on protecting their jobs rather than doing their jobs.

    Company cultures can take years and years to recover from layoffs (and many of them never do recover).

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2012, at 1:53 AM, JGBFool wrote:

    Thankfully, yes-men in marketing are generally safe, as are HR personnel.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2012, at 1:21 PM, TMFDarwood11 wrote:

    @lowmaple, if we are serious about avoiding layoffs, then it seems we should NOT buy stock in companies such as AAPL who use offshore surrogate companies to avoid these problems.

    However, it appears I'm in the minority here and apparently, AAPL is doing everything right, because people are fighting to purchase their stock, and the company has gross profit margin of something like 47%, according to some reports.

    Of course, this avoids the problem of American workers who never got the chance and were put out of work by "market forces."

    It's also obvious that Americans have no problem purchasing AAPL products and like to vote one way but open their wallet another.

    How many Motley Fool readers own AAPL stock?

    How many photos of smog laden Chinese skies and reports about polluted water and pollution "run amok" in Chinese cities do we have to see before it becomes apparent that offshoring industry to these countries with limited pollution controls and questionable regulations is not a really good idea?

    Meanwhile, some promote "green" companies. I say let's promote companies that are regulated, use pollution controls, adhere to OSHA and MSHA rules and make good products.

    There are difficult choices to be made. That's why I don't own AAPL and similar companies. I don't buy "green" per se because I am more interested in who a company is hiring (which is to say "where") and I am interested in how a company makes its money. I'm also very particular about the "foreign" companies I purchase stock in.

    My choices limit my personal profits and the returns on my investment portfolio. I consider myself to be pragmatic and a moderate. I also think I'm doing my part to build a better world, both via my investments and the work I do.

    Sorry to preach.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2012, at 12:31 AM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    I don't own Apple stock. There are clearly problems with the way the labor force that makes their toys is treated. My 2005 Nokia is so smart, it's not sitting in a third world landfill. In fact, it gets great reception for telephone calling (imagine that), and is still running on its original battery. I even got a complement on it the other day from a cute, young guy.

    And to "Kahuna, CFA":

    You're a Charted Financial Analyst? Really?

    One of the first things they study for that exam is a very detailed, no nonsense history of finance, complete with all the details of every Wall Street scam ever to be uncovered. A person who passes that exam cannot possibly NOT know the meaning of the word "risk" (as in, just because a risk didn't materialize in one or two instances doesn't mean it never existed for the entire class of assets or entities we're discussing), or the difference between the health of financial markets in 1985 and 2008. You sound like just another huckster who pipes up with this crap, that it "didn't happen to you, ha ha."

    I suppose your real estate values haven't fallen, either, because your mortgage is paid off. There's also plenty of "brilliant" financiers who never had a problem trading credit default swaps -- until, um, they did.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2012, at 12:59 AM, CaptainWidget wrote:

    Serious question Ms Lomax. What is your business background? Have you ever ran a business that employed people who's marginal cost exceeded their marginal benefit, refused to lay them off, and then prospered?

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2012, at 1:30 AM, IyaJenkei wrote:

    Wouldnt it also hurt their business and the economy as a whole? yes higher profit margins but not as many sales? If someone is laid off that's less money they have to spend on the things we want. Not as much money flowing around doesnt seem like a good thing to me

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2012, at 4:07 AM, gtwhitegold wrote:


    I agree about the hiring policies, but if the United States Government really wanted to improve employment of American Citizens, then they would not have free trade agreements with 18 countries. They would set graduated tariffs set by country and industry. Industries that the United States is currently more competitive in would be lower. Also, these tariffs would be adjusted either annually or semi-annually to reflect the current state of the import/export ratio.

    Some countries, such as Australia and Canada have comparable costs of employment similar to the United States would have very low tariffs while countries such as Vietnam with very low labor costs would have much higher tariffs.

    The purpose of the tariffs is not to eliminate imports, but to increase the likelihood that American and foreign companies will invest in infrastructure and personnel in the United States.

    I understand that this may not be legal per GATT or other international agreements, but it would serve the purpose of improving labor conditions in the United States.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2012, at 4:34 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Sigh. I agree that it is very bad form to harp on someone's grammar, but when a person challenges the author of an article as incompetent, and in the space of a few sentences breaks several basic rules, I have to say something about it.

    I'm talking to you, Captain.

    As for the content, everyone knows that a business can run for a period of time during which at least some of its employees' marginal benefit exceeds their marginal cost -- in fact, every business does it at various points in its lifecycle and the business cycle. Whether it's wise to do in a particular case is a pretty hard question, and of course there are times when the answer is no. But if it is wrong for every business to take this risk at every point, then a whole lot of entrepreneurs should just fire themselves.

    P.S. This is a GOOD article. Thanks for posting it.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2012, at 11:56 PM, 2motley4words wrote:

    @Sunny7039: Thanks for giving me a chuckle---'cause, although I didn't remark on it, I too noticed the ironic situation into which CaptainWidget unwittingly stumbled.

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2012, at 5:21 AM, CaptainWidget wrote:

    <<Sigh. I agree that it is very bad form to harp on someone's grammar, but when a person challenges the author of an article as incompetent, and in the space of a few sentences breaks several basic rules, I have to say something about it.>>

    You used multiple clauses without the proper intransitive verbs in this sentence. Therefore, because you made a grammatical error on a site which disallows editing, your opinion is moot and you are incompetent.


    It's rare to come across the ol' "you spelled something wrong, therefore you're wrong" argument this day and age. Time to grow up fella.......

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2012, at 5:42 PM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Good lord, what are you babbling about now? There are no grammatical errors in that sentence -- and stylistics is, well, a matter of style. (Do you know what an intransitive verb is?)

    Nor was that my argument. But then, everyone can see that for themselves. ("Straw-man fallacy" alert!)

    If you had any class you would apologize to the writer of this article.

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2012, at 7:15 PM, CaptainWidget wrote:

    Run-on sentences are never grammatically correct, no matter what style you prefer. Interrupting clauses without the proper conjunction is never correct, no matter the style you prefer.

    For the record, I'm a published author. I've sold 20K books and I've copy edited NYT best sellers. What are your writing credentials? Although I'm sure you meant well by pointing out my grammatical errors, I probably typed that post in 10 seconds while watching the Season Finale of House. In wasn't intended nor executed as high level prose......I get paid to do that.....I post on this site for fun. If I want my fun writing to be sloppy, then I'll damned well write sloppily and not apologize for it.

    If you had any class, you would apologize to the author for making such a ridiculous comment and dragging her article comments off-topic.

  • Report this Comment On May 29, 2012, at 1:24 AM, Sunny7039 wrote:

    Let's back up and consider Ms. Lomax's excellent points.

    What happens during a mass layoff? Rather than being judged on their individual merits and their individual worth to a company, those who are laid off are all lumped together in one big MASS, and booted out the door. In short, they are not treated as individuals, but as an undifferentiated mass. How is this fair? It isn't.

    What happens next? The myth that a person is ultimately responsible for being laid off is so pervasive that they will very likely have a stigma to overcome when they look for their next job. This will probably happen to them even if they were an outstanding employee and did nothing to deserve being laid off. All a person has to do is examine this Comments thread and others to see how pervasive the attitude is. The victim "must have" done something wrong, or else they wouldn't have been laid off. We have got to get rid of this poisonous attitude.

    What happens if they stay unemployed for a long time? Lots of things. Economic productivity at the macro level is lost. Right now, we have one of the lowest rates of participation in the labor force since WWII. This is not good. What else? If you look at the figures for long-term unemployment among those 50 and over, you will see a remarkable spike in applications for Social Security disability. Did they all suddenly get sick? The stress of being unemployed can do this to a person. This, in turn, puts a further strain on Social Security, and ultimately on Medicare as well -- just when fewer people are paying into the system.

    These are all very good reasons to care about mass layoffs. They affect everyone. This article is very timely and on point.

    And CW, I didn't come back here for you. You can claim anything you want, as can anyone on the Internet. Do you expect me to tell you my writing credentials when I prefer anonymity?

    What you cited as a "run-on sentence" is not, and there is no such thing in grammar as an "interrupting clause." Nor were any of my clauses "interrupted" by the lack of a required conjunction.

    The apology you owe is for snidely implying Ms. Lomax couldn't possibly have the knowledge or experience to write on this subject. I never said you should apologize for trashing her article ungrammatically. Indeed, by doing so ungrammatically, you helped to undermine your own position. Good.

    Anyway, I see she still has a job here, and is doing it well.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 3:54 AM, thidmark wrote:

    Quite possibly the most asinine thing I've read on this site.

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