Regular News & Views readers will recall that in December, we covered concerns around Google’s treatment of its temps, vendors and contractors, or ‘TVCs’.
Now, that story has come to a head, with The Guardian reporting that a 900-strong “coalition” of TVCs and full-time Google employees has written to the tech giant’s leaders demanding fairer treatment for short-term staff.  The flashpoint that sparked the missive was a sudden management decision last month to shorten the contracts of 34 staff on the Personality Team behind the intuitive Google Assistant: the firm’s equivalent of Alexa.
“During the process,” those workers wrote in the letter, “our managers and the full-time workers on our team were silent. Google told them that offering support or even thanking us for years of work would make the company legally liable. Our teammates were told to distance themselves from us at the moment when we were most in need – just so that Google could avoid legal responsibility.”
The letter added: “For years, Google has boasted of its ability to scale up and down very quickly, and [has been] vocal in its ability to ‘navigate changes with agility.’ A whole team thrown into financial uncertainty is what scaling down quickly looks like for Google workers. This is the human cost of agility.”
A Google spokeswoman explained that this scenario was effectively the norm. “Temporary workers join our workforce when we need to ramp up quickly for projects,” she said in a statement. “When particular projects mature, we work to transition temp and vendor roles to regular full-time employee roles.”
Nonetheless, questions remain over the “human cost of agility” that the letter so powerfully highlights. In a piece last August for HR Magazine,  leadership consultant Dr Linda Holbech wrote: “As a general rule the task of leaders in agile organisations is to engage people around a broad vision for the future and to focus on building or acquiring capabilities. Command and control styles of leadership are out of sync with the goal of catalysing willing input from employees.”
She added: “Many CEOs struggle to make the shift. To build their own agility and resilience, leaders have to become comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing all the answers. They have to develop mental toughness yet also be able to empathise with the people they lead. Such leadership approaches take time and practice to develop.”
If each of us is to be a good leader, how do we ensure that staff who enable our firms to achieve rapid scale-ups don’t subsequently feel that we’ve taken them for granted?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If your agility is defined purely by a reliance upon a pool of freelance or ‘gig’ workers, then you can be agile because you are able to lay those people off very quickly, give them short-term contracts or decide at short notice not to renew their tenure. Your business model is not rooted to the protections that people have with conventional employment contracts. The lack of those protections is the reality that gig workers face every day.
“That reality may well suit those workers because of its inherent flexibility. But the downside risk is that their income could be suddenly cut off according to sharp changes in the employer’s business strategy or circumstances. So, if we as leaders are to do the right thing by freelancers, then we should help them to spread that risk.”
Cooper notes: “One way that gig workers have traditionally done that for themselves is by working for more than one employer at a time. So, if you hire a freelancer on one of these contracts on a full-time basis, are you really being an ethical employer? I would suggest not. The benefits are weighted too far in your favour, rather than the worker’s. If, however, you appreciate that these people need to have access to other employment in parallel with the arrangement they have with you, enabling them to spread the risk posed by sudden changes, then you are acting responsibly.”
She points out: “Those workers may not be as available to you – or ‘on tap’ – as perhaps you would want them to be, and they may not be able to deliver projects in tightly compressed timeframes. But you would at least be acknowledging the totality of their experience, rather than presuming that their relationship with you is paramount.”
Cooper adds: “I don’t think Dr Holbech’s take really helps to answer the ethical problems around the treatment of gig workers. Her thoughts on ambiguity and not knowing are all well and good – but I would suggest that you are much better placed to tolerate ambiguity and not knowing if you have a full-time employment contract.
“Agility means having systems and processes in place that are neither constraining, nor rigid. So, as well as applying to contracts of employment and flexible working, it must cover other, critical areas such as procurement policy and finance systems – the way we do things. Agility must define how we run our businesses in the round. It’s a much wider proposition than simply the ability to hire or fire at will.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on understanding HR