Are Employees Modern-Day Serfs?
We live in a constantly innovative world, but most innovation comes from smaller companies while larger organizations tend to be slower or less risk-taking. While there are many reasons for this, one I know of personally is the lack of recognition employees get for being innovative.
Many companies financially reward employees for patents they author, but patents aren’t the only ways innovation increases, and employees may receive little incentive or support if they have an idea even slightly askew from their day-to-day work. In fact, many companies actively choose to stifle their employees through employment contracts that state all inventions and product ideas are owned by the company even if not part of their workload or thought about and worked on by an employee on their own time with their own resources.
Some time ago I turned down a very lucrative software development job from a hiring manager who took umbrage at the side projects on my resume, projects I worked on to improve my own life and skills in software development (these focused on the Mac OS X platform at the time, although I also now work on iOS projects). He said that if I were developing any software on my own time in my home with my own equipment, he wanted it only to be his software. I asked him if he thought the car mechanic who took care of his car at the local dealership should not be allowed to work on his own car in his own garage in his own home. He didn’t answer, and I told him that I could not accept his conditions.
Many companies find their own staff lacking the perspective or skills they need, so a common practice nowadays, especially by Silicon Valley giants, is to perform an acqui-hire, where a smaller company is bought mainly for its talent and sometimes its products, and all are folded into the purchasing company. While this may benefit everyone in the short-term, there are plenty of articles and social media postings that report these employees left almost immediately after their stock options or grants were vested. In most cases, these employees leave because they are no longer able to innovate within the culture of their new company.
If employees had the opportunity to pursue their own endeavors on their own time with their own resources, companies might eventually be able to tap that talent. When I’ve had the opportunity to do this without fear of being sued by my employer, I’ve often discovered more novel approaches in work-related problems no matter how unrelated the projects.
Looking at how Alphabet (aka Google) does this might inspire some companies. However, companies should avoid any control, real or imagined. An obvious first step is that an employee should not be required to ask any manager in their company for permission—many managers are simply too vested in their own projects and easily prone to turn everything down regardless of how well an employee handles his or her work. One manager I had a few years ago was so controlling he told me to quit submitting bugs I found with the beta release of one of our company’s products no matter how much they hindered me (the product I worked on was an add-on to that product), and it was due to be released in a few months.
If the company should be involved at all, a completely independent department of intrapreneurship should be created, one whose only goals are the employee’s personal growth and the company’s success at large. The department should only advise and assist the employee and not restrict in any way, operating as an internal incubator. As an extra incentive, intrapreneurs should also be significantly rewarded if their companies choose to purchase their projects but not punished if they don’t. The book publishing industry operates like this—a publisher usually has the right to buy and sell an author’s first few books, and if they decline, the author then has the right to shop it around. At the very least, no-moonlighting rules should be made illegal from employment contracts. After all, if a company’s CEO can be on the board of directors of another company, why can’t their employees work at another job on their own time?