Have you ever wished you were less well informed? Try outsourcing

In the final season of the US political drama The West Wing, White House press secretary Will Bailey is called into the office of chief of staff CJ Cregg, where he is told that the president’s son-in-law might be sleeping with the nanny.

Bailey is furious – not so much at the news, but more the fact he’s received this information at all.

“I do my best work when I am the least informed person in the room,” he tells Cregg. “You taught me that!”

Naturally, there will be those who say that the fictional Bailey’s quip has now evolved into the modus operandi of the real-life leader of the free world. But the line is a good one not because it was ahead of its time: it is relevant because it represents a long-time political and commercial truism.

Bailey’s problem was that he didn’t want to be put into a position where he might have some psychological conflict – what the pros call cognitive dissonance – where a person simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values.

So if Bailey were ever asked about the rumour regarding the president’s son-in-law he would either have to knowingly lie (and few people like to think that of themselves), evade (ditto) or tell the damaging truth, thereby upsetting his proud professional self-image. After all, Bailey’s job is to put himself in the line of any fire heading towards the boss.

Employers have a duty of care to those in supply chains

Frances O’Grady, TUC

As businesses are created by people, we shouldn’t be surprised that Bailey’s “least informed person in the room” model is increasingly being built into corporate structures, sparing executives the inconvenience of feeling hot under their white collars.

For example, pressure to cut costs provides the chance to screw workers on pay and conditions. But how many actually have the stomach for that? Equally, not making required savings risks being criticised for weakness. Few warm to that sensation either.

So it’s far easier to take the Bailey route. Conjure up a structure where your firm outsources its labour to another company – a company that just so happens to be able to provide virtually all of your workers far more cheaply. As you are now purchasing a service from a client, your business can avoid asking properly probing questions about how those savings are achieved, while the switch gives a firm plausible deniability when somebody else gets screwed.

In essence, no executive need then question that the organisation they are working for is totally professional while still possessing cuddly values. And nobody in this management class need doubt that they are a hard-nosed business person as well as a thoroughly terrific human being.

This is all going to be relevant again this week when the Trades Union Congress (TUC) will call for employers to be made liable for abuses in UK supply chains, as it ramps up its campaign on these issues ahead of a related report due this month from Sir David Metcalf, the government’s labour market tsar.

The TUC estimates that around five million UK supply-chain workers have no right to challenge their parent employer over any minimum wage and holiday pay abuses, should they feel they are being exploited. They are made up of 3.3 million employed through outsourced companies, 615,000 in franchise businesses and “at least” one million employed by recruitment agencies, umbrella companies and personal service companies.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady puts it thus: “Employers have a duty of care to workers in their supply chains. They shouldn’t be allowed to wash their hands of their responsibilities. Joint liability must be extended to parent employers. Without it, they can shrug their shoulders over minimum wage and holiday pay abuses.”

It seems like a fair point. Just ask Will Bailey.