The subject of slavery has been a topical one recently. First the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Then the news that in the UK there are now migrant workers who might be accurately described as bonded workers: not much better than slaves.
Bonded workers, in case you didn’t know, are contracted to work for a number of years during which they are fed and housed, paid little or nothing, but at the end of that time they are paid a lump sum. That cash might be needed to pay off their passage from their country of origin. So they have to keep working for the stipulated time because they are heavily indebted.
So why did the phrase “bonded worker” pop into my mind recently, when pondering the IT workforce? It happened after hearing an HR manager describe some of his IT workers. “There are too many of them in their fifties who are just hanging on because of our final salary pension scheme.”
He is not alone. Some other companies are also concerned about their “bonded” IT workers: those who are demoralised and not very committed to their jobs but who for economic reasons are inching slowly towards their big pension prize in some years’ time. Such people have existed in many industries for many years, but today the problem is greater in IT.
Many IT people are dispirited and cynical as they see their jobs exported offshore, or as they wave goodbye to colleagues who have been transferred to CSC, EDS, Hewlett Packard or IBM in outsourcing deals.
So what’s the answer?
That particular HR manager was concerned that some of these workers seemed to be carefully doing enough – and only just enough – to avoid being sacked. It was bad for morale for others to see this behaviour and he could not turn a blind eye to it. So he was tightening up the performance rating and performance management system to “catch” the miscreants.
This option was noted long ago – by none other than Adam Smith: “A [slave] can have no other interest but to… labour as little as possible… Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”
So will IT managers have to become like old-time slave owners, whipping better performances through the violence of the performance review? Hopefully not. But underperformance cannot be overlooked: it’s not fair to those who are performing and it’s bad for morale to see colleagues get away with not contributing.
But on its own the “get tough” option is a pretty inadequate response. It hardly seems likely to leverage good performances from disconnected workers and it may hit the morale of some very good workers. Adam Smith went on to say: “The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any…”
In other words, people who are working under these conditions do not offer value for money.
Obviously employers could loosen the economic chains and release demotivated workers – by offering generous exit packages. There would probably be a good economic case for doing that, but the problem is that this would be seen as rewarding the uncommitted.
At a time when the Blair era is ending, it may be appropriate to adapt one of Tony Blair’s slogans: tough on disengagement, tough on the causes of disengagement.
In a review carried out at the turn of the year, we identified that the need for new career propositions for IT workers is the biggest single issue facing IT people today. What exactly is the “deal” offered by employers today? The old proposition, which involved skilled technical work, expansion, career opportunity, marketable skills, generous pay and perks, is not on offer in many big employers today.
And it’s not clear what has replaced it.
Like the bonded workers of old, many IT workers today are not sure what’s in it for them if they work really hard at their jobs. Sure, there might be a bonus at the end of the year. But there might also be news that their system is to be maintained offshore from now on. Or that their job is moving to an onshore vendor. Everyone knows how crippling uncertainty is, and I believe that it is job and career uncertainty that is causing the commitment of many in IT to falter.
Chief information officers and IT directors must, in my view, focus on getting faster answers to the resourcing dilemmas they face, and on communicating the answers more quickly to those affected by them. Rapid implementation will help, too. The aim should be to clarify the end-game sooner – and to reach it sooner.
Where this is done, IT people can get on with their jobs. If they don’t want to do those jobs, then they have to be confronted. But just as many bonded workers gave a very good day’s work to employers who treated them well, so will most of today’s ageing IT workers who are locked in by pension rights. Strong decisive leadership will resolve many of the issues: the “bar” for IT leadership just got higher.
Iain Smith is founder of Diaz Research