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Category: Employment Law

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A Slower Boat From China: Pilotless Ships and Changes to Labor and the Environment

A slower but powerful change is coming to a less familiar part of transportation: shipping. The Economist Tech Quarterly headline on Ghost Ships caught my attention because I know the term from piracy and a script I wrote about the subject. Ghost ships in modern terms refer to ships where a pirate crew has gotten rid of the crew, painted a new name on the ship, and/or set it adrift. The new ghost ships will also lack a crew but for a different reason. The autonomous cargo vessels the article describes are an extension of insights from autonomous cars. The returns to this shift could be as important. Shipping has operator errors: “Most accidents at sea are the result of human error, just as they are in cars and planes.” And costs will come down. Not only would a ship not need a pilot; it may not need a crew.

With pilotless ships, a company could almost eliminate the crew. Costs drop not only for labor but for fuel, because ships could move slower for certain goods. “By some accounts, a 30% reduction in speed by a bulk carrier can save around 50% in fuel.” That saving is lost when paying for people and a ship that has to house and feed people. Plus less fuel burnt should result in environmental benefits. And as the article notes, there is a piracy connection. The human cost of piracy would go down quite a bit. I suppose pirates could still try and take over a ship. But holding the crew hostage would not be an issue and so retaking a ship is simpler. Plus I can imagine that a ship going off course and controlled from afar may be more difficult to commandeer. A pirate might not be able to restart engines or take the ship to destinations unknown. The shore control could have a kill switch so that the ship is useless.

As with my thoughts on driverless cars, the new labor will be those who can operate the ship by remote. A shipping center could house experts to monitor the ships and take over as needed. Instead of months at sea, sailors would be, hmm, landlubbers. Not sure I like the sound off that, but then like has nothing to do with what the future is.

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Health as a Bottleneck

In his thoughtful and path-breaking book, Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, Joey Fishkin challenges the common conception of equal opportunity as providing a level playing field.  He explains that merely equalizing opportunity at critical points in a person’s life, such when she applies for a desirable job or college program, is often not enough. By then, social inequities and previous limited opportunities may have already taken their toll on the affected individuals, perhaps leaving them underprepared and ill-equipped to meaningfully compete—let alone succeed—even when given the chance.  Fishkin explains that this line of reasoning puts us in a vicious cycle: To achieve true equal opportunity, interventions must happen earlier.  But when is earlier?  The disadvantaged job applicant could have benefited from a better college education.  Yet the disadvantaged college student could also have benefited from a better high school education.  And the disadvantaged high school student could have benefited from a better primary school education. And the disadvantaged primary school student could have benefited from having parents with higher incomes and more time to devote to parenting, which just takes us back to the disadvantaged job applicant.  Hence, Fishkin identifies a key flaw in the traditional construction of equal opportunity: We are all the products of our opportunities, and those opportunities can never be truly “equal.”  To that end, he endorses “opportunity pluralism,” which he defines as making more opportunities available to more people.  Thus, in a society that limits educational or job opportunities based on a particular standardized test, we can move away from asking whether the test is a fair metric and instead ask why the opportunity structure depends upon its results.

Fishkin christens these opportunity-limiting factors “bottlenecks” and pushes us to understand traditional antidiscrimination protections through that lens.  Thus, well-known protected statuses, such as race and sex, can be understood as bottlenecks because certain opportunities have been construed to require whiteness or maleness.  But legally recognized antidiscrimination categories, such as race and sex, are not the only bottlenecks we have to contend with.  Employers also restrict opportunities based on other factors, such as college education, credit history, criminal convictions, or unemployment.  My own scholarship has dealt extensively with yet another employer bottleneck: health.

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College Football Unions?

I was intrigued by this story about the petition by the Northwestern University football team to form a union. In prior posts I’ve criticized the NCAA and argued that players in football and basketball should get paid.

I do not know enough about labor law to know if the NRLB might grant this petition, but it is a great way of drawing attention to the problem. It is also worth noting that arbitration is what led to the creation of free agency in baseball. Sometimes an unjust system gets challenged from an unexpected quarter.

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The Dualities of Freedom and Innovation

What a rollercoaster week of incredibly thoughtful reviews of Talent Wants to Be Free! I am deeply grateful to all the participants of the symposium.  In The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity, Anupam Chander, continuing Frank Pasquale’s and Matt Bodie’s questions about worker freedom and market power, asks whether Talent Wants to Be Free overly celebrates individualism, perhaps at the expense of a shared commitment to collective production, innovation, and equality. Deven Desai in What Sort of Innovation? asks about the kinds of investments and knowledge that are likely to be encouraged through private markets versus. And in Free Labor, Free Organizations,Competition and a Sports Analogy Shubha Ghosh reminds us that to create true freedom in markets we need to look closely at competition policy and antitrust law. These question about freedom/controls; individualism/collectivity; private/public are coming from left and right. And rightly so. These are fundamental tensions in the greater project of human progress and Talent Wants to Be Free strives to shows how certain dualities are pervasive and unresolvable. As Brett suggested, that’s where we need to be in the real world. From an innovation perspective, I describe in the book how “each of us holds competing ideas about the essence of innovation and conflicting views about the drive behind artistic and inventive work. The classic (no doubt romantic) image of invention is that of exogenous shocks, radical breakthroughs, and sweeping discoveries that revolutionize all that was before. The lone inventor is understood to be driven by a thirst for knowledge and a unique capacity to find what no one has seen before. But the solitude in the romantic image of the lone inventor or artist also leads to an image of the insignificance of place, environment, and ties…”.  Chapter 6 ends with the following visual:

 

Dualities of Innovation:

Individual / Collaborative

Radical/Incremental

Accidental /Deliberate

Global /Local

Passion / Profit

Art/Science

Exclusive/Shared

Inscribed/Tacit

 

And yet, the book takes on the contrarian title Talent Wants to Be Free! We are at a moment in history in which the pendulum has shifted too far. We have too much, not too little, controls over information, mobility and knowledge. We uncover this imbalance through the combination of a broad range of methodologies: historical, empirical, experimental, comparitive, theoretical, and normative. These are exciting times for innovation research and as I hope to convince the readers of Talent, insights from all disciplines are contributing to these debates.

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Free Labor, Free Organizations,Competition and a Sports Analogy

I have enjoyed the discussion on Orly’s book and thought of an interesting analogy to sports that is worth sharing. The inspiration was  Haddock, Jacobi, & Sag, “League Structure & Stadium Rent Seeking–The Role of Antitrust Revisited,” 65 Florida Law Review 1 (2013), an offprint of which appeared in my box the other day.  I recommend the article for those interested in regional economic development, sports franchising, antitrust and composing a title for an academic article without using a colon.  The ideas below are inspired by the article but represent my own views, not those of the authors.

Free agency in sports is desirable along the lines of Orly’s argument. Talented players are not locked into a particular team and can auction their skills off to the highest bidder.  I think the case is strong for free agency as benefitting individuals and society. One can complain about rent seeking and about the dynamics that lead to improper behavior like doping. As far as rent seeking, it is a loaded term like piracy or pornography, acting more as a conclusive label rather than an analytical concept. Orly’s argument supports rent seeking when it benefits talent and helps to unlock it.  As far as the dark side of competition (doping or cheating), those can be handled through other means than limiting free agency.

Does the free agency argument translate over into the firm or organizational level?  As Haddock, Jacobi, & Sag point out, there is lots of wasteful behavior as sports teams threaten to move in order to get better franchise deals from cities.  I understand their argument to be that the industrial structure of sports franchises in the United States leads to such opportunistic behavior as strapped and often desperate cities cannot effectively respond to the threat of exit by a team. They contrast the US sports team structure with that in the UK, where teams rely more on fan support rather than public subsidies.  Consequently, municipalities often have several sports teams that compete among themselves.

I found this example fascinating for the purposes of this symposium.  First of all, the free agency point maps readily onto Orly’s point. Competition among players is perhaps more effective and arguably more fair than competition among teams where players are locked into the firm and its mechanisms (if any) for internal competition.  At the same time, arguments for free competition do not readily transfer over to the franchising level given the industrial organization of teams and their relationship with cities. The answer to the problems Haddock et al. identify for sports franchising in the US lies in altering the political and market structure within which bargaining and competition for franchises occur. The example illustrates the relationship between individual mobility, competition internal to an organization, and the background structure of competition that defines how interactions among and within organizations play out.

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Talent Timing Paradox

There is a hidden paradox in Talent Wants to be Free: There is time to lock down, and a time to set free (maybe to sow, reap, and more too). Lobel notes that some work indicates that early stage industries may benefit from lock down. But she also makes the observation that a company locking down talent may be in decline. What can we make of this possible paradox?

I think that it shows how difficult it is for any company or industry to truly innovate. As Lobel notes, when things plateau, talent should be loosened up. Why? I suggest that the old hack of the Innovator’s Dilemma is in play. As a company is used to a certain business there are many reasons it won’t move on to the next thing. And it may not be able to see or be willing to work on the next thing. The folks who are into crazy late night work, start-up adrenaline, and the chance to press the edge of whatever field they are in find that the company has become stale. That may also be an industry. I believe that the convergence of businesses is part of why Silicon Valley companies looked to limit talent movement. They both did not want their core people help competitors build rival services and found that folks may be tempted to move to a seemingly new place. For example, a social network person may have jumped to Google to build Google + if their old firm was stable or a search technologist to Amazon or FaceBook, and so on. The respective verticals may be stale and converging. So the leaders start to find ways to keep labor in place (and probably sneak folks to their outfits as much as they can nonetheless). Is there another option? Sure.

Start a Bell Labs, Skunk Works, or Google X. In the short term at least, some of the best folks may stay and set up the next stage of your company. But as the scenario planning and related literature show, sooner or later the company will fail to turn that work into something. When that happens, some of the talent may be frustrated and leave. Again, the need for the payoff, the we planned for X and delivered X vortex takes hold and down the drain we spin. The upside is that other companies will lurk at the edge of the collapse and pick out the best of the wreckage. The key as Lobel argues is that the human capital be able to picked up. If not, the stalling, collapsing company keeps hold of good folks who might do great work elsewhere.

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Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.

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The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity

In Talent Wants to Be Free, Orly Lobel’s masterfully demonstrates the importance to business, employees, and society at large of workers who are free to move and free to innovate. The symposium this week has seen well-deserved praise heaped on the book from many of the nation’s leading scholars in the area. Lobel, a legal academic, explains the law in a way that non-lawyers (and even lawyers seeking a summary of the law of covenants not to compete, confidentiality agreements, and trade secret) will greatly appreciate.

The shift she describes is part of the larger move from status to contract that has marked modernity—a world in which individuals make and remake themselves. I have myself embraced this model in my own way in my book The Electronic Silk Road. I accordingly find myself entirely sympathetic to Lobel’s prescription. In that book, I describe and embrace the ways that production processes are now splintered across the globe, with global supply chains now including services, not just manufactured parts, supplied in disparate locations. There is liberation implicit in this—on the Internet, no one knows what class or caste into which you were born (though cultural markers are never entirely absent, even in cyberspace). Equally important, it allows individuals in developing countries to participate in lucrative markets in developed countries that would deny those individuals visas.

When I moved to Northern California a decade and a half ago, I carried my Midwestern and East Coast sensibilities with me. When a former student told me he was leaving his job after just one year at one of the leading technology law firms, Wilson, Sonsini, I was not entirely sure this was wise. He joined an important Silicon Valley operating company, and worked there for two or three years. He surprised me by then informing me that he was returning to Wilson, Sonsini. I would have thought that his leaving his law firm after such a short time might have made him persona non grata there, but he returned there certainly a lot more knowledgeable about the needs of the firm’s clients. Wilson, Sonsini clearly understood the virtues of freedom of employees—seeing it not as a sign of instability or disloyalty, but a marker of curiosity, dynamism, and ambition. Lobel would certainly approve, both of the employee and of the employer.

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The Hard Questions about Talent, Market Regulation, and the World of Work

Each in his own sharp and perceptive way, Brett Frischmann, Frank Pasquale and Matthew Bodie present what are probably the hardest questions that the field of human capital law must contemplate. Brett asks about a fuller alternative vision for line drawing between freedom and control. He further asks how we should strike the balance between regulatory responses and private efforts in encouraging more openness. Finally, he raises the inevitable question about the tradeoffs between nuanced, contextual standards (what, as Brett points out, I discuss as the Goldilocks problem) versus rigid absolute rules (a challenge that runs throughout IP debates and more broadly throughout law). Frank and Matt push me on the hardest problems for any politically charged debate: the distributive, including inadvertent and co-optive, effects of my vision. I am incredibly grateful to receive these hard questions even though I am sure I am yet to uncover fully satisfying responses. Brett writes that he wanted more when the book ended and yes, there will be more. For one, Brett wanted to hear more about the commons and talent pools. I have been invited to present a new paper, The New Cognitive Property in the Spring at a conference called Innovation Beyond IP at Yale and my plan is to write more about the many forms of knowledge that need to be nurtured, nourished, and set free in our markets.

Matt describes his forthcoming paper where he demonstrates that “employment” is reliant on our theory and idea of the firm: we have firms to facilitate joint production but we need to complicate our vision of what that joint production, including from a governance perspective, looks like. “Employers are people too” Matt reminds us, as he asks, “Do some of the restrictions we are talking about look less onerous if we think of employers as groups of people?” And my answer is yes, of course there is a lot of room for policy and contractual arrangements that prevent opportunism and protect investment: my arguments have never been of the anarchic flavor “let’s do away with all IP, duties of loyalty, and contractual restrictions”. Rather, as section 2 (chapters 3-8) of Talent Wants to Be Free is entitled we need to Choose Our Battles. The argument is nicely aligned with the way Peter Lee frames it: we have lots of forms of control, we have many tools, including positive tool, to create the right incentives, let us now understand how we’ve gotten out of balance, how we’ve developed an over-control mentality that uses legitimate concerns over initial investment and risks of opportunism and hold-up to allow almost any form of information and exchange to be restricted. So yes: we need certain forms of IP – we have patents, we have copyright, we have trademark. Each one of these bodies of law too needs to be examined in its scope and there is certainly some excess out there but in general: we know where we stand. But what about human capital beyond IP? And what about ownership over IP between employees and employers?

So yes, we need joint inventorship doctrines for sure when two inventors work together. But what about firm-employee doctrines? Do we need work-for-hire and hired-to-invent doctrines? Here we arrive to core questions about the differences between employment versus joint ventures or partnerships between people. And even here, the argument is that we continue to need during employment certain firm protections over ownership. But the reality is that so many highly inventive and developed countries, diverse as Finland, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Germany, and China, all have drawn more careful lines about what can fall under “service inventions” or inventions produced within a corporation. These countries have some requirement for fair compensation of the employee, some stake in inventions, rather than a carte blanche to everything produced within the contours of the firm. The key is a continuous notion of sharing, fairness and boundaries that we’ve lost sight of. Intense line-drawing as Brett would have it that is based on context and evidence, not on an outdated version of the meaning of free markets.

What about non-competes and trade secrets? Again, my argument is that these protections alternate, they should be discussed in relation to one another, and we need to understand their logic, goals, and the cost/benefit of each given that they exist in a spectrum. Non-competes is the harshest restriction: an absolute prohibition post-employment to continue in one’s professional path outside the corporation. This is unnecessary. The empirics are there to support their absolute ban rather than the fine dance that of balancing that is needed with some of the other protections. Sure it makes life momentarily easier for those who want to use non-competes, but over time, not only can we all live without that harsh tool, we will actually benefit from ceding that chemical weapon in the battle over brains and instead employ more conventional arms. And yet, even in California, this insight doesn’t and shouldn’t extend to partnerships. The California policy against non-competes is limited to the employment context. If two people, as in Matt’s hypo, are together forming a business, their joint property rights in that business suggest to us that allowing some form of a covenant not to compete will be justified. There will still be a cost to positive externalities but the difference between the two forms of relationships allow for absolute ban in one and a standard of reasonableness for the other. And yes, as Brett alludes to, the world is not black and white and we will have to tread carefully in our distinctions between employees and partners.

I completely agree with Matt and Frank that there are fundamental injustices created by our entire regime of work law. Talent Wants to Be Free takes those deep structures into account in developing the more immediate and positive vision for better innovation regimes and richer talent pools. Matt writes that a more radical alternative lies within Talent but “deserves more exegesis: namely, whether we should eliminate the concept of employment entirely.” What if people will always be independent contractors?, he asks. The reforms promoted in Talent Wants to Be Free, allowing more employees more control over their human capital, indeed bring these two categories – employees and independent contractors – closer together in some respects. But far more would be needed to shift our work relations to be more “democratic and egalitarian: a post-industrial Jeffersonian economy.” As both Frank and Matt show, in their own scholarship and in their provocative comments here, this will require us to rethink so much of the world we live in.

Frank Pasquale’s review is so rich that I hope he extends and publishes it as a full article. Frank says that “for every normative term that animates [Orly’s] analysis (labor mobility, freedom of contract, innovation, creative or constructive destruction) there is a shadow term (precarity, exploitation, disruption, waste) that goes unexplored.” I would agree that the background rules that define our labor market, at will employment, inequality, class and power relations, are not themselves the target of the book. They do however deeply inform my analysis. To me, the symmetry I draw between job insecurity and the need for job opportunity is not what Frank describes as a “comforting symmetry”. It is a call for the partial correction of an outrageous asymmetry. And yes, as I mentioned at the very beginning of the symposium, I hoped in writing the book to shift some of the debates about human capital from the stagnating repetition of arguments framed as business-labor which I view not only as paralyzing and strategically unwise but also as simply incorrect and distorting. There is so much more room for win-win than both businesses and labor seem to believe. On that level, I think Frank and I actually disagree about what we would define as abuse. I do in fact believe that many of us can passionately decide to give monetary gains in return for a job that provides intangible benefits of doing something we love to do. Is that always buying into the corporate fantasy? Is that always exploitation? Don’t all of us do that when we become scholars? Still, of course I agree with many of the concrete examples that Frank raises as exploitation and precarious work – he points to domestic workers, which is a subject I have written about in a few articles (which I just realized I should probably put on ssrn - Family Geographies: Global Care Chains, Transnational Parenthood, and New Legal Challenges in an Era of Labor Globalization, 5 CURRENT LEGAL ISSUES 383 (2002) and  Class and Care, 24 HARVARD WOMENS LAW JOURNAL 89 (2001)]. Frank describes a range of discontent in such celebrated workplaces as Silicon Valley giants, which I too am concerned with and have thought about how new hyped up forms of employment can become highly coercive. Freeing up more of our human capital is huge, but yes, I agree, it doesn’t solve all the problems of our world and by no means should my arguments about the California advantage in the region’s approach to human capital and knowledge flow be read as picturing everything and anything Californian as part of a romantic ideal.

 

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A Time for Action: The Double Gain of Freer Regions and the Double Speak about Talent Droughts

As Catherine Fisk and Danielle Citron point out in their thoughtful reviews here and here, the wisdom of freeing talent must go beyond private firm level decisions; beyond the message to corporations about what the benefits of talent mobility, beyond what Frank Pasquale’s smartly spun as “reversing Machiavelli’s famous prescription, Lobel advises the Princes of modern business that it is better to be loved than feared.” To get to an optimal equilibrium of knowledge exchanges and mobility, smart policy is needed and policymakers must to pay attention to research. Both Fisk and Citron raise questions about the likelihood that we will see reforms anytime soon. As Fisk points out — and as her important historical work has skillfully shown, and more recently, as we witness developments in several states including Michigan, Texas and Georgia as well as (again as Fisk and Citron point out) in certain aspects of the pending Restatement of Employment — the movement of law and policy has actually been toward more human capital controls rather than less. This is perhaps unsurprising to many of us. Like with the copyright extension act which was the product of heavyweight lobbying, these shifts were supported by strong interest groups. What is perhaps different with the talent wars is the robust evidence that suggests that everyone, corporations large and small, new and old, can gain from loosening controls. Citron points to an irony that I too have been quite troubled by: the current buzz is about the intense need for talent, the talent drought, the shortage in STEM graduates. As Citron describes, the art and science of recruitment is all the rage. But while we debate reforms in schooling and reforms in immigration policies, we largely neglect to consider a reality of much deadweight loss of through talent controls.

The good news is that not only in Massachusetts, where the governor has just expressed his support in reforming state law to narrow the use of  non-competes, but also in other state legislatures , courts and agencies, we see a greater willingness to think seriously about positive reforms. At the state level, the jurisdictional variations points to the double gain of regions that void or at least strongly narrow the use of non-competes. California for example gains twice: first by encouraging more human capital flow intra-regionally and second, by its willingness to give refuge to employees who have signed non-competes elsewhere. In other words, the positive effects stem not only from having the right policies of setting talent free but also from its comparative advantage vis-à-vis more controlling states. This brain gain effect has been shown empirically: areas that enforce strong post-employment controls have higher rates of departure of inventors to other regions. States that weakly enforce non-competes are on the receiving side of the cream of the crop. One can only hope that legislature and business leaders will take these findings very seriously.

At the federal level, in a novel approach to antitrust the federal government recently took up the investigation of anti-competitive practices between high-tech giants that had agreed not to poach one another’s employee. This in fact relates to Shubha Gosh’s questions about defining competition and the meaning of free and open labor markets. And it is a good moment to pause about the extent to which we encourage secrecy in both private and public organizations. It is a moment in which the spiraling scandals of economic espionage by governments coupled with leaks and demand for more transparency require us to think hard. In this context, Citron is right to raise the question of government 2.0 – for individuals to be committed and motivated to contribute to innovation, they need some assurances that their contributions will not be entirely appropriated by concentrated interests.