The Red Badge of Courage

Some days, it's a policy discussion. For example, a discussion about marriage equality that leaves the door ajar for moral and faith-based perspectives leads to a merry-go-round that never, ever stops. No amount of logic can stop it. No amount of impassioned pleading can stop it. Those debates never end and never find peace. So, sometimes, keeping the focus trained on policy reality, and economic reality, helps moves the discussion forward.

Today, though, I want to discuss how we treat those who provide essential services for us. Our treatment of them reflects on us, and in some cases, damns us. For this discussion, I wish to remove policy reality and economic reality from the table, and place values and ethics and behavior back on that table. If I made this a discussion centered around economic reality, I might descend down a cavernous rabbit hole from which there are no clear exits.

To start, let's examine large, successful and prestigious companies and how they get that way.

Companies that succeed get there with the intertwined assistance of partner companies, vendors, boutiques, special service organizations, and independent contractors. These vendors help them with specified operations like marketing, accounting, production and many other services. Each contribution, however minute, is intrinsic to helping the host companies succeed, and the host companies in turn help their vendors to succeed. Business is thereby porous and symbiotic. No one service provider exists autonomously. You may be thinking 'well, of course that's true,' but often, the way these big tech companies are lauded by an adoring media, you'd think they got their entirely on their own.

It's increasingly common for large, prestigious companies to give vendors the privilege of sharing campus space with them while they provide their said services. This cuts down on extemporaneous expenses (such as travel and communications costs) for the host company. This makes it unnecessary for the host company to cover health insurance or other benefits for the vendor. The vendor does not lose out from a business standpoint - they win a contract and are able to work intimately in the environs of a charged, focused culture. This, in turn, helps them to grow and gives them bragging rights with future potential clients. Again, this is how business works everywhere.

To some, this practice is not only smart, but a win-win scenario. The host gets to avoid being shellacked by rising costs, and the vendors grow their own business and cultivate prestige associated with being part of a well known commodity. I also understand the security considerations behind limiting access to autonomous third parties.

In another sense, this boils down to host companies in positions of economic and political advantage getting third parties to do work for a much, much lower price than would normally be entailed were the department grown 'from within.' This method of doing business is not without its cultural casualties. It can be analogized and speak a larger story about the inevitable losers in any untempered Capitalist society. In a strictly human, interpersonal sense, these corporate host/vendor relationships can spawn tiered caste systems that disenfranchise, bully, belittle, distort, and devolve the real value of essential services into submission.

I can think of at least three major Silicon Valley juggernauts who place huge stakes for vendors in providing essential core operations. These host companies largely - again because it makes business sense - avoid creating departments from within. It's too expensive. Because so many vendors vie for the opportunity to provide services, and thereby earn business contracts, the competition is fierce. In the midst of that feverish demand, the host company is afforded the luxury of picking and choosing who serves them, for how long, and for what price. It puts the host company in a position where they can actually get much work done for no cost at all, to the detriment of the vendors providing the service. In many of these cases, due to the superior political and economic position of the larger company, the vendor has only two choices: do the work for free, or lose the contract.

Let's consider a hypothetical host/vendor relationship, for a moment. On our fictional campus, there are three different security badges worn which denote social status within the company. White badges run the show. Blue Badges provide vendor services. Red Badges clean the toilets and answer the phones. Since the hosts tie vendors and subordinates inextricably to their culture, blue and red badges are are expected to observe strict guidelines and protocol. They are expected to live in the white badge culture but are not treated with the same level of prestige and respect afforded the white badges. In such a situation, I am reminded of our broader work VISA situation, which is especially prevalent in the Silicon Valley.

Software and Network Engineers come to Silicon Valley from India with their families because the opportunities afforded them by their host company are too great to pass up. They get here, move in, have kids, send money home to their extended families, and then one day, they get a phone call telling them it's either train their replacements in New Jersey or go back to India. Not much of a choice, there. Sure, Visas, like contracts, can be extended, but it's never a certainty, and the inherent value of the work the red badges provide is nothing to the white badges. These aren't hypothetical theories. They are my friends and neighbors. These are the stories I hear from my own backyard.

Red badges of all stripes are not autonomous parasites riding the coattails of the white Badges. They are, in essence, essential yet expendable appendages which can be cut off at any time from their hosts. They are not inherently part of the culture and yet are expected to be. So they try to fit in, and they are scorned, because the culture in which they work is on full steam ahead, and not concerned with cultivating mutual respect and acrimony between the white, blue and red badges. Getting ahead is the goal. Profit is the goal. Blues and reds might as well be visitors from another planet, wandering among the native species.

If you're a white badge at our fictional company, and you scorn the red and blue badges, you probably have an excuse as to why they deserve your scorn. They are, like I said above, parasites to you. They simply use up your resources. You resent their presence, and resent them even more when they demand to be paid fairly for the services they provide. They are lucky, you insist, to get to share in your wealth. The reality is - and if you stepped away from the entitlement and the flushed, fresh out of college pride in your own superiority and grew a social conscience, you'd see that there is something inherently wrong with expecting others to follow your rules and emulate your cultural values, while refusing them the respect and dignity they have ostensibly earned. Afford them the simple human courtesies and respect that your afford your fellow white badges, and you may just find that your company culture, or even your society, will not lose cohesion. It won't actually fall apart. It may actually improve.


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