After the outsourcing

When a company decides to outsource jobs or send them offshore, the morale of the remaining IT workers can nose-dive and pose challenges to managers who need to motivate them.

Outsourcing survivors may react with outrage, fear, “survivor’s guilt” or even a heightened work ethic, bordering on manic behaviour, say psychologists and workplace consultants.

Although some experts say that IT managers need to proactively address the morale of survivors of outsourcing to prevent loss of productivity, there’s little consensus on whether tactics such as spot bonuses, employee recognition or increased training boost morale substantially.

But experts agree that IT managers need to focus on the human aspects of the problem and acknowledge the feelings of survivors.

“People react all over the map to outsourcing and offshoring, and IT managers need to realize that you can’t manage the reaction,” says Eileen Strider, president of Strider and Cline Inc., organizational effectiveness consultants in Kansas City, Mo. “The best you can do is be aware that people will have a range of reactions from, ‘Screw you, I’m outta here,’ to a denial reaction that says, ‘I’m not important.’ ”

Amid such a range of strong human reactions, the worst thing an IT manager can do is to adopt the common attitude that “people don’t matter; only the software matters,” she says. Managers may react that way to protect their own feelings because they’re probably hurt by the outsourcing too, but “at the very least,” she says, “managers need to acknowledge the feelings of these workers.”

Plenty of IT managers have good people skills, says Naomi Karten, but they’re not good at managing large-scale change and recognizing it as a psychological or emotional process. Karten, who consults on workplace issues as president of Karten Associates in Randolph, Mass., says an offshoring or similar change provokes a “gut-level reaction, not a head experience.”

“Many managers tend to look the other way and say, ‘Let’s get on with business.’ And that can be the wrong thing to do,” she says. “In fact, that approach can cause the transition to take longer.”

Karten urges managers to get offshoring survivors to talk about how they feel, but to do so without using the word feelings to avoid calling attention to it. “Make it OK to vent,” she says, and provide reminders of things that haven’t changed.

Bear in mind that an outsourcing produces a new IT team, even if just one person was lost or added, Karten says. That means everyone should also spend time figuring out the new roles and reporting relationships.

Timothy Hoffman, a psychotherapist and founding director of Ambrosian Associates in Pastoral Counseling in Spencer, Mass., says the mission of managers overseeing outsourcing survivors is to “give them some semblance of stability.”

A high-level executive should clearly communicate that the decision to outsource was beyond his control and important to the company’s survival, Hoffman says. And explaining that the strongest workers were retained can help reduce self-doubt.

A dose of reality at such a meeting can be valuable too, Hoffman adds. “This is the business world and not Sunday school,” he says. “The jobs of our fathers are gone, with their pensions and other guarantees.”

While some companies might provide spot bonuses to survivors, in terms of motivation, “those things are Band-Aids,” Hoffman says. “People would much rather have self-esteem and make decisions on their own. They prefer power and respect over money.”

In extreme cases, survivor’s guilt can produce low-level post-traumatic stress disorder that can be debilitating and lead to high absenteeism, Hoffman says. CIOs need to familiarize themselves with such reactions and employ counselors to help if necessary, he says.

Finally, says Hoffman, try to help survivors realize that those who got booted out can use the experience as a stepping stone to something better in their careers.

“If you are upfront and honest, people will understand what’s going on and the business impact,” adds Tom Pettibone, a partner at Transition Partners Co., a consulting firm in Reston, Va. “There may be a morale impact, but the world is changing, and the worst thing you can do is try to hide it.’

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