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Science Careers Blog

August 28, 2009

Treating Employees Well

This column in Business Week describes a call-center business where employees are offered full health-insurance benefits and can earn 6 figures. The idea is to treat employees as valuable assets instead of as faceless commodities to be exploited.

The column focuses on the conventional notion that we can't compete with low-wage countries (to which U.S. jobs are often outsourced), which, argues columnist Vivek Wadhwa,  is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of competitiveness and of our competitive advantage. "With smart processes and the proper incentives, U.S. companies can keep jobs here in America, and do so in a way that is actually better for the company and its employees," Wadhwa writes.

The company in question, IQor, Inc. (the link is to the Business Week "Company Overview"), which, as Business Week writes, has seen its revenues increase 40% annually for the last 3 years. Its salaries are nearly 50% above "industry norms." Aside from the call-center work, the company provides support for a number of "back-office" tasks in the finance, media, and telecommunications industries--"work that's largely been relegated to the scrap heap in the U.S., considered a source of little more than low-wage, low-value, and low-self-esteem jobs." And, just like call centers, many of those jobs have been off-shored. IQor has 11,000 employees worldwide, but its U.S. operations have grown fastest.

The notable thing is that the company has succeeded by treating its employees well. No, these are not future scientific stars. But they are, nonetheless, the keys to the company's performance. And the way to attract and keep the best employees--and to extract maximum performance from them--is to treat them like stars, not interchangeable parts. "To ensure that employees don't feel like a job at iQor is a dead end, the company creates career path programs that clearly lay out a worker's road to advancement. IQor regularly promotes employees who started out working the phones to management." The result is low turnover and high performance."iQor invests in its people, and doesn't view them as expendable or replaceable. The company values tenure and seeks to promote from within its walls, a hallmark of companies with strong cultures."

So what's this got to do with science careers (or with Science Careers)? Well, consider the implications for academic science, where a relatively small fraction of the workforce--namely, the PIs--make as much as half what IQor's top call-center employees make.  If treating a worker like a valuable employee helps a call center's productivity and bottom line, imagine what it could do for scientific productivity--the ultimate knowledge work. 

For years we have written that the key to extracting the most from knowledge workers is to treat them well, help them feel comfortable, and see to it that they have the support they need to focus on their work (without sacrificing their families and personal lives). The competing perspective--that workers are like machines, or interchangeable parts of machines, to be driven as cheaply as possible--never made much sense in a scientific context, though that's still how some administrators and policy makers seem to view postdocs.

IQor demonstrates that it might not make much sense even in a call-center context--and that this might be a key idea for America's future competitiveness.

Hat tip: Slashdot

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