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Jul 16, 2012

That story last week about the young Florida lifeguard who was fired for going to save someone out of his area seemed to get a lot of people talking.

One TLNT reader who responded to Ron Thomas‘ post here about the incident (Fired For Being in the Moment – What We Can Learn From a Young Lifeguard) felt it was a story that was simply overblown:

“It’s misleading to characterize that this termination was carried out by “Management.” … It was carried out by “a manager.” And her actions were quickly countermanded by the company. The owner of the company said “this never should have happened.”

The company exposed a management flaw here — the termination should not have been possible without a higher level review or approval. At the same time this more clearly represents a case of a “bad manager” than it does “bad management” overall in the company.”

More a story about outsourcing

So, with apologies to the TLNT reader who thought this was simply the case of one bad manager run amok and NOT indicative of some larger workplace issues, here’s another voice who seems to disagree with that — Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein.

In Pearlstein’s view, this is less a story “about about the foolish rigidity of business managers” and instead a “a parable about outsourcing and how it is reshaping large swaths of the economy.”

It’s an interesting perspective because Pearlstein uses the incident with the fired Florida lifeguard to highlight the pros and cons of what happens when jobs get outsourced by an organization and someone else takes on the responsibility instead.

For example, the fired Florida lifeguard worked for Jeff Ellis Management, who had been contracted to provide lifeguard services to the city of Hallandale Beach, Florida. It was Jeff Ellis that was responsible for managing the lifeguards — not the city of Hallandale Beach.

Pearlstein writes:

Hallandale is like many public and private enterprises that decided to outsource to contractors work that is not part of their core missions or competencies.

Because they are generally free from union contracts and the unwritten norms of pay equality that exist within any enterprise, contractors are able to pay lower wages and benefits — in many cases, a lot lower. That was certainly the case with Ellis and the Hallandale lifeguards. …

There is, however, an important trade-off that is made by outsourcing that contractors reflexively deny but is inherent in any firm that derives its competitive advantage from having carefully constructed systems for doing just about everything.

It is these systems — the rules, the procedures, in effect the operational software — that allow companies to take relatively low-skilled, low-paid workers with relatively little experience and have them do tasks that were once done by people with higher skills, higher pay and more experience. And it is the very nature of these systems that workers are discouraged, if not prohibited, from exercising their own discretion. Their only job is to follow rules, stick to the script and leverage the experience and expertise that are embedded in the system.”

Limiting employee discretion

That’s what the young Hallandale beach lifeguard was fired for — going out of his area to attempt a rescue, or to put it another way, exercising a little discretion on the job.

I’m old-school enough to believe that having employees who can exercise their brain and good sense is a good thing, but as columnist Steve Pearlstein points out (and he gives a lot of good examples), that’s not how it works when you outsource a workplace function:

It’s why (lifeguard) Tomas Lopez was initially fired by a supervisor who had ordered him to remain at his post until another guard arrived before responding to calls for help from a distant, unpatrolled part of the beach. …

The reason these various systems can deliver reliable service at lower cost most of the time is precisely because front-line workers are willing and able to act like cogs in a machine. So when two of Lopez’s colleagues later told supervisors they would have done the same thing, they were fired as well.

If you want discretion and judgment, if you want workers who really understand and relate to customers, if you want the flexibility necessary to respond to individual needs or unforeseen circumstances, then you can go back to paying twice as much to have your own, longtime employees doing the work. That’s the outsourcing trade-off. It may be a good trade-off — most of the time I suspect it is. But it is an unavoidable trade-off, no matter how good the contractors or their systems.”

This is an interesting column worth reading, because it pushes past the initial notions of bad management in this fired lifeguard story and instead digs into the plus and minuses of outsourcing. something we don’t talk about enough, except when it gets politicized in the presidential campaign.

If you manage talent, and wither outsource work now or are thinking about doing it in the future, that’s probably something you want Pearlstein’s perspective on.

For more on Lifeguard’s Ordeal is a Parable About Outsourcing, click here.