IT staff and bonded labour: not that different?

Are poorly performing IT staff - like bonded labourers - tied to jobs they hate because they desperately need the lump sum payment at the end? If so, IT managers should look for better ways to motivate the wage-slaves

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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.

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