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Bank's parting "happy talk' hurtful to workers losing jobs

Last week, CoreStates Financial Corp. of Philadelphia officially wrapped up a $19.8-billion deal that puts it in the hands of First Union Corp., of Charlotte, N.C. As it vanished into history, Core-States handed out an unusual parting gift to its 19,200 employees, as many as 7,000 of whom will eventually lose their jobs as a result of the megadeal: a yearbook.

Stacked in conference rooms and stuffed into mailboxes at dozens of CoreStates branches and administrative offices were packages meant to ease the pain and to help employees hold on to their happy CoreStates memories. Included was a "tribute book" in which to collect signatures and messages from co-workers, write a poem or stick photos of fellow employees taken with a disposable camera, also included.

"This guide will encourage you to reflect on your experience with CoreStates, and identify who you've become, what you want for your future, and what steps you're willing to take to get there," reads the introduction to a separate booklet crammed with self-assessment worksheets, feel-good quotations from the likes of Aristotle and Janis Joplin _ and this good advice: "Good luck, be reflective and choiceful, and have fun!"

The "tribute packages" were greeted with a range of emotions.

"I haven't heard a good comment about this," says Karen Reynolds, a 36-year CoreStates employee whose last day at the bank is June 5 and who like others who have been told they are out of a job, is getting severance pay. She says some co-workers in the credit-card marketing department near Wilmington, Del., have discussed mailing the packages back to Terrence Larsen, chief executive of CoreStates, who agreed to sell the bank to First Union only weeks after fending off a buyout offer from Mellon Bank Corp. When he rejected Mellon, Larsen encouraged employees in a now-famous electronic-mail message to swap "high-fives." Larsen was unavailable for comment.

Reynolds, who spoke against the takeover at a CoreStates shareholder meeting and at a Federal Reserve Board hearing, says the disposable cameras are for "disposable employees."

"One side of me wants to rip (the camera) open and have someone take a picture of my hand being very nasty," she says.

CoreStates employees who don't know whether they will have jobs in the merged company are reluctant to talk openly, but some say all the happy talk is just salt in their wounds. A few are so indifferent they have yet to crack their books.

Yvette Hyater-Adams, a Core-States senior vice president who led brainstorming sessions that gave birth to the idea of the tribute book, insists that the project was a big hit. "I must have had my picture taken 500 times. People really got into it," she says.

CoreStates says some employees have asked to receive additional copies. In a memo to employees, Larsen wrote: "While a single book or shelf of books cannot hold the entire CoreStates experience, the CoreStates Tribute Package is important because it is something we can hold onto. I hope it will be something that we all keep and say with pride, "I was part of this.' "

CoreStates declined to refer a reporter to rank-and-file employees willing to speak favorably about the packages. A spokesman said, "This is First Union now, and we're trying to focus on all the opportunities a new organization brings. . . . The important thing for us right now is moving ahead."

Larsen, who was named vice chairman of First Union and will be paid at least $2.5-million in annual salary and bonus by the North Carolina bank, reviewed but didn't supervise production of the farewell packages, in which he wrote, "The unfamiliar can be unsettling. It can also engender a sense of adventure and excitement."

The "tribute book" in many ways reads like a high school yearbook. The "Do you remember . . ." page features 17 mostly silly moments in CoreStates history, dating back to 1782. CoreStates asks if employees can remember "when CoreStates set the unofficial world record for most bank employees attempting to dance the Macarena at one time?"

In a 12-page "companion guide," employees are asked "Who are you?" and then, four pages later, to "write a personal mission statement, philosophy or creed." For employees who need an extra nudge, there is this encouraging line from Joplin, the late blues singer: "Don't compromise yourself, honey. You're all you've got."

The resemblance to a yearbook isn't accidental. The idea was recommended by a 15-person committee of employees drawn from various departments, ethnic groups and even sexual orientations throughout the company. "I've regretted the fact that I never bought my high school yearbook," Hyater-Adams said. "Several other employees said they wished they also had the same memento."

And so the tribute packages were born. CoreStates won't say how much it spent to print and distribute the gift.

The touchy-feely books aren't a bold step in a new direction for CoreStates. The bank launched an internal program several years ago emphasizing certain "core values," reiterated last week, including people, performance, diversity, teamwork, communication and integrity. About three years ago, the initiative became the company's Change Management Strategies and Development Unit. Hyater-Adams, the CoreStates executive, is spinning that unit off into an independent consulting firm, with First Union as its first client.