Strike vote fuels IBM Australia debate

A potential impending strike action at one of IBM Australia's Sydney facilities has sparked debate about whether it was still worth striving to work at one of the largest and most prestigious technology firms in Australia and the world.

A potential impending strike action at one of IBM Australia's Sydney facilities has sparked debate about whether it was still worth striving to work at one of the largest and most prestigious technology firms in Australia and the world.

About 70 employees at IBM's Baulkham Hills facility will by midday Friday vote on whether to go on strike in a secret ballot. The workers want a collective agreement granting better pay and work conditions.

A number of readers who claimed to be current and former IBM staffers have been discussing the company, using ZDNet.com.au as a forum for the debate. With this in mind, we spoke to a number of past IBM Australia workers to get their thoughts on the matter.

An IBM spokesperon declined to respond directly to the issue, reiterating previous comments that the firm was "widely recognised as an employer of choice, offering competitive remuneration and a very broad range of benefits for employees".

The upside
Most past IBM employees ZDNet.com.au spoke to this week had a broadly positive view of the firm.

"I spent the first couple of weekends working in the office," said one. "I was surprised to see people who lived locally who brought their friends to barbecues there." The worker was incredibly excited when he started because the reputation of the company preceded it: "IBM was seen as a great place to work".

He said that although it was expected that IBM employees worked hard, the feeling was at the time that staff were there to make their career and wanted to do good work. "Because it's a performance-based culture, if you have a good track record that's great," he said.

The pay structure was a good one, according to an ex-employee who worked in sales to Australian telecommunications companies. "The bonus could run up very quickly depending on your performance," he said.

It wasn't just the pay, however, but the perks that came with it such as health and education which didn't just extend to the employee but also to their family.

The bonus could run up very quickly depending on your performance

Former IBM Australia staffer

One employee who recently left IBM said the working conditions were certainly commendable. "For most of the people I know, the working arrangements were very flexible," he said. "A lot of people were there for less than a year and were able to have kids, get time off, be able to work from home two to three times a week," he said.

"I can understand why IBM has won a few awards for their treatment of women in the workplace," he continued.

Although he didn't believe the morale at the company was very strong, the ex-employee said a lot of people were happy to work for two to three years on low pay because they would get the company's name on their resume. Others stayed on because of the perks.

Others remained to gain good experience, he said. The company was a hot-bed for learning, with those who wanted to get ahead easily being able to acquire new skills across the different sections of the organisation.

"What impressed me the most was the opportunity to grow, not only locally, but regionally and globally as well," another ex-IBMer said.

Most echoed this sentiment, saying the organisation's size and scope allowed workers to gain a range of experience which they could never obtain in an in-house IT department, not to mention the fact that it looked nice on a resume.

The downside
The pay package, however, received less praise. "We were underpaid compared to other places," one ex-employee said, adding that IBM's reputation worked against the size of its employees' salary: "I think it's a situation that's held in other industries as well. If you are working for a place that has a big presence in the market, especially if you're straight out of university, they can afford to underpay you."

Not only did the worker think the pay was low, he also felt the way it was structured was deceptive. He said that employees would think they were getting $50,000 a year, but they might be getting quite a lot less because the company would have factored in 100 per cent of the performance pay.

"I think I may have got that whole component once in six years," he said.

He also felt the rankings for performance pay, from one to four, were distributed arbitrarily, because managers could only give a limited number of ones, and if a worker received the top score last year, he was unlikely to get it again the year after no matter how hard he worked.

The size of the company also brought its drawbacks, with some staff feeling suffocated under stiff processes.

"IBM's biggest challenge has always been that it's a very large organisation and has a big bureaucracy," one said.

One ex-employee shared an anecdote on layers of bureaucracy and management. Everyone around him received an email from on high saying that as of that day there would only be two cartons of milk for each floor per day.

IBM's biggest challenge has always been that it's a very large organisation and has a big bureaucracy

Former IBM Australia staffer

He said it felt as if there were too many layers between those at the bottom and the top, and that those at the top just pushed down decisions which the next level had to carry through. "Oh look at that — $200,000 a year on milk," he laughed.

The ex-employee also talked of the endless meetings which would suck up five months of a six-month project, which would leave a frantic scramble at the end to complete the necessary work for a client.

It could have been the culture rather than the size which had employees struggling to "achieve things in spite of the organisation", with one former employee who had since moved onto an open source organisation implying that it wasn't possible for companies like IBM to have an innovative and adaptive nature.

"I believe overall that any closed source proprietary organisation will ultimately struggle against open source organisations," he said.

Although another employee felt that former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner's revamp in the 90's had done a lot for the company in terms of decision-making speed, he also felt the competition was hard. "There are quite a lot of nimble and competitive rivals around now, and I'm not sure how IBM is coping," another said.

Another employee said the problem was money. "Bottom line was king," he stated, adding that working in the outsourcing division, staff were encouraged to always stick to the letter of the contract, providing the minimum level of service and making sure that anything extra was charged as an upgrade.

He acknowledged, however, that the mentality may have been a recent development. "Speaking to people who had been there for a longer period, 20 or 30 years, it hadn't always been that way," he said.

What have your experiences been like when working at IBM Australia? Has Big Blue changed for the worse over the years? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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