Insight article


A hidden identity crisis: the problem with outsourcing

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will tell you that a sense of belonging is an important factor in any human’s life. Given that many of us spend most of our daily lives at work, this need for belonging can be played out in the corporate world too: a strong, positive culture of inclusion, empowerment and involvement, a sense of wellbeing and work/life balance, trust, active engagement in the strategy and vision of a business, strong leadership, aligning one’s own values with and living those of one’s employer, and having a clear organisational ethos or purpose all contribute to one’s happiness in the workplace.

But what happens when an employee finds themselves in a situation where they identify more with their customer’s purpose and values than that of their actual employer? Take support service organisations or large B2B consultancies, where employees are outsourced into their customer’s organisation, often for months or years. In many cases, their real employer’s presence in their lives may largely only be apparent by the logo found on their payslip, while they are immersed on a daily basis in the activities and environment of their customer, exposed to their culture, values and messaging on a constant basis – not that of their employer. Their social interactions, sense of identity and belonging will almost certainly lie with their customer’s organisation. Franchised organisations can also be challenged with this. For example, a large car dealer network might include a number of businesses which deal exclusively with a one or two OEMs. Whose values do they uphold? That of their parent company or those of the brand they are representing? The same can be said of some call centre operations, where employees are representing multiple customers/brands. How do they align their actions and behaviours with the demands of different customers, who need their customer-facing representatives to act and behave according to their own organisational values and culture?

This is a dilemma that thousands of people in the workplace are facing. In a B2B world, from an employer’s point-of-view, their tenure of contract with a customer will rely on their outsourced employees delivering excellent customer service to uphold their corporate reputation and secure ongoing business. They may well have spent thousands on the recruitment, training and development of those employees, and certainly won’t want the expense of them jumping ship. They need their employees to feel a sense of loyalty, belonging, pride and purpose in their parent organisation, aligned to their values and culture – a sense of belonging – even if their emotional investment in time, energy and engagement lies within their customers’ organisation on a daily basis.

These issues present serious challenges to organisations when it comes to creating a strong brand culture, and indeed to delivering a better customer experience. This requires a slightly different and more detailed approach:

  • Firstly, the need for an overarching strategic narrative is greater than ever in this instance. It’s so important for employees to have that shorthand view of the organisation’s vision, mission and values, especially where there are competing ideas to deal with. It can also become an important vehicle to engender a sense of pride and purpose in the organisation, which will ultimately lead to a better quality of delivery.
  • Secondly, it’s even more important to conduct research that reveals the prevailing mood in the organisation, the different personas that exist, and the experience that they live. Navigating this kind of complexity requires a more astute understanding of the different characters who are on the front line, in order to properly identify where the points of ambiguity are, and who they apply to.
  • Finally, and where there are competing values to uphold, it’s so important to reduce that complexity to individual instances rather than a top-level approach. Franchise and outsourcing models entail a rich variety of interactions with many different stakeholders – understanding when to live which brand values has to be specific. Illustrative stories about colleagues are incredibly helpful in this instance too, to give genuine, applicable examples to employees.

Creating an atmosphere of understanding and trust is particularly crucial in such business models. A strategic narrative is always useful in setting a clear vision of the journey that a business on. But in this case, it is even more important to get specific: about the personas in your organisation, the times where they face ambiguity, and their positive experiences of approaching given situations correctly.

Alison Esse

Co-founder and Director