How to outsource your own job

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(MoneyWatch) When someone using a Chinese computer network was recently discovered to be constantly logging into a company in the U.S., it sounded security alarms. Who could it be, and why? The user was unauthorized and appeared to be versed in most computer languages. Was this an attack? Was it some sophisticated new form of malware?

The answer, as Verizon explained on its security blog, turned out to be simple, if unexpected: The Chinese user was working for one of the American company's software developers, who had effectively outsourced his own job. While he came into work each day and surfed the web, watched cat videos and checked into Facebook, his "employee" in China did his work. The U.S. employee, dubbed "Bob," apparently used this approach to work for several employers at once, earning flattering appraisals and hefty take-home pay. Writes Verizon security investigator Andrew Valentine:

As it turns out, Bob had simply outsourced his own job to a Chinese consulting firm. Bob spent less that one fifth of his six-figure salary for a Chinese firm to do his job for him.... Evidence even suggested he had the same scam going across multiple companies in the area. All told, it looked like he earned several hundred thousand dollars a year, and only had to pay the Chinese consulting firm about fifty grand annually.

Bob was fired. But it made me wonder -- how many people outsource their jobs? With so much work being done virtually these days, could you hire someone at a quarter of your pay to do your job so you can find another, better paying one? And if so would you do it?

A lot of lawyers get junior attorneys to prepare their work for them. Some academics do too. You may get one appointment with an important hospital physician and the expensive surgeon may turn up for your operation, but most of the time your medical treatment is in the hands of less august (and pricey) staff than the named consultant. How many companies do you know that field their best and brightest for the sales pitch who, once the deal is done, are never seen again?

I was recently asked whether I'd consent to be interviewed for a book about women in the workplace. Sure, I said, when would you like to do it? I'll let you know, the author told me. I'll get my writer to contact you. The "author" here wasn't the writer at all -- she was a consultant who paid writers to produce books that were, in effect, the marketing materials for her consulting business. I didn't find time for the interview.

My hunch is that a lot more of this goes on than most people recognize or confess. What's remarkable about Bob's story is that, like most employees, he did turn up physically for work. He just didn't do the work. On the other hand, lots of people turn up at the office and don't do much. At least Bob ensured that his work got done, on time and, apparently, very well.

Perhaps the real question isn't about Bob but rather about his manager. Had he outsourced his job, too?

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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