Holding a mirror to fakery in the office

Bob’s lie may have been extreme, but how many others are faking it at work, while well paid bosses simply don't notice?

David Brent (the original, mind you)
David Bolchover
On 20 January 2013 09:55

A story which went viral on the internet last week has provided great merriment to the millions who read about it. A software developer in the United States paid less than one fifth of his six-figure salary to a contractor in China to do all his work for him, leaving him to surf the day away on the web while sitting at his desk.

The story was presented by news outlets as an amusing sideline, something to make you chortle after you have finished digesting news of murder and recession elsewhere. I suspect that this approach may well have stemmed from a natural instinct for self-protection; neither the reporters nor the readers wanted to contemplate its real significance.

This anecdote reveals so much about the modern-day workplace, and the fate which awaits us in the West, that people will understandably prefer to take it at its superficially amusing level.

First, some more relevant facts about the case. According to the security investigators who eventually uncovered the scam, the man in question (awarded the fictitious name “Bob”) was a long-serving employee in his mid-40s, “a family man, inoffensive and quiet…someone you wouldn’t look at twice in an elevator.”

Bob’s performance reviews, put together by his managers, had been consistently excellent over a period of several years. “His code was clean, well written, and submitted in a timely fashion.” Time and again, he was described as “the best developer in the building.” The investigators believe he may have had other similar jobs in the local area, the content of which he also outsourced to China .

There are several important points we can make about this tale. The most obvious, staring all of us in the face, is that this software developer was massively overpaid, not just for one job, but for several. How many millions of other very well-paid jobs could be similarly hived off to other countries, saving shareholders huge and unnecessary expense?

The presumption hitherto has been that the higher-paid one’s job is, the less susceptible it has been to offshoring. While senior executives will think nothing of hiring overseas contractors for work previously performed by the grass roots of the business, they will be understandably nervous about the implications of employing a similar strategy with positions just one step below them in the hierarchy.

If these six-figure jobs could be performed so well for just a fraction of the salary they currently command, what does that say about their own seven-figure jobs? Are they really so talented and indispensable as they claim?

How long before the logic of offshoring makes their own replaceability too difficult to deny? Massive swathes of the proliferating middle class in the developing world may already be experts in IT, finance and other key functions. But how long before they are able to mimic the prized affectations of Western executives -- their manner, outward self-confidence and the strange but carefully learned speech patterns only considered normal and desirable within the narrow confines of the corporate world?

There are other reasons why this story may have been treated so frivolously, thus avoiding any painful conclusions. All Bob’s managers, in what may have been several companies, were clearly oblivious to the reality of the employee’s existence, revealing their complete detachment and lack of interest in the daily activities of workers they are presumably supposed to motivate and develop. If 100 percent of this man’s managers were utterly uninterested in him, what are the chances that your own manager has any genuine interest in you?

Bob’s state of ennui, so great that he preferred to spend endless hours on Facebook and ebay rather than perform the tasks involved in one of those jobs we are constantly told are “challenging”, functions as an unwelcome mirror to the tired, trapped and middle-aged who persistently try to persuade themselves that they should be happy with their career lot, but know deep down that they never will be. I doubt somehow that Bob's Chinese counterparts will have been similarly afflicted by this deep-seated dissatisfaction.

Image, too, is a key footnote to this story. Bob no doubt got away with his ruse for so long because he looked the part. He was quiet, unassuming and honest-looking: the archetype of a reliable, diligent programmer. Many others owe their career success to an elaborately constructed workplace image, so necessary in a knowledge economy where individual value in countless, glamorous-sounding jobs is impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy.

We know the signs – the jargon; the feigned busyness which Bob for one mastered for years without anyone noticing; the name-dropping; the self-promotion; the false laughter to greet a superior’s joke. Bob’s lie may have been extreme, but how many others are playing out a role in soulless office buildings in order to secure the lifestyle to which they and their family have become accustomed?

As it happens, Bob went too far. If he had merely employed the moderate dishonesty of so many others, that lifestyle would have been preserved. For others in similarly well-paid jobs, the better option would be to go down a well-worn, very similar, but more acceptable route: take on a young intern, and then send them on their way a couple of months down the line, just before it becomes blindingly obvious to all and sundry that they are able to do your job just as well as you can.

David Bolchover's latest book is "Pay Check: Are Top Earners Really Worth It?" (Coptic Publishing)

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