Writing this month's cover story was more challenging than usual. Few insurance executives wanted to talk about offshore outsourcing-at least not "on the record." That's because the topic is incredibly sensitive these days."My staff doesn't know I'm here," one IT manager told me at the Outsourcing Forum hosted by this magazine in Tampa in February. Another attendee announced that protesters were picketing at another outsourcing conference taking place in Orlando that same week.
Still another executive admitted he hired an offshore outsourcing firm because business conditions left him no choice--but he did so only with the guarantee that none of his IT staff would lose their jobs. "You need to take care of your people," he said. "You don't want to leave that kind of legacy." Plus, he added, in the small town where his company is headquartered, everybody owns a gun. And he wasn't just joking.
Outsourcing is the kind of topic that polarizes people-because you're messing with people's jobs. And when you mess with jobs, you mess with lives--not just numbers on a balance sheet. You enter the realm of human emotion.
As a result, despite all the arguments about how U.S. companies save millions of dollars by offshore outsourcing-and how that will lead to higher profits and therefore more jobs for U.S. workers-the fact is: When you're unemployed, you don't know how you're going to pay the mortgage or how you're going to buy clothes for the kids.
So, it's not surprising that unemployed U.S. IT workers are upset--and politicians are jumping on the offshore bandwagon-and insurance executives won't talk--because job loss hurts.
Perhaps the most compelling argument I've heard in favor of offshore outsourcing was from Thomas Friedman in a commentary published in February in The New York Times.
In it, Friedman describes the self-confidence and self-worth he witnessed in young workers in an Indian call center he visited. He contrasts their optimism and joy with the cynicism of three young Palestinian men he visited weeks earlier on the West Bank. The Palestinian youths "talked about having no hope, no jobs and no dignity," Friedman writes. "They each nodded when one of them said they were all 'suicide bombers' in waiting."
Friedman's story gets to the heart of the matter: Jobs provide people with hope and dignity--whether they're in Poughkeepsie, Bangalore, the West Bank or Timbuktu. Without jobs, people anywhere will become frustrated and even angry.
I don't know what insurance executives should do to soften the blow for U.S. workers when business objectives force them to move jobs to another country or to hire cheaper labor. But I do know this: When you're messing with people's lives, intellectual and financial arguments-no matter how logical and rational they are-are simply insufficient. When you're messing with people's lives, you have to have a heart too.
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