Utility sets IT department on path to self-destruction

Northeast Utilities tells IT employees it may shift work to overseas firm, but hasn't set deal or severance plan if it comes to it

Northeast Utilities has told its IT employees that it is considering outsourcing tech work to India-based services providers -- a plan that puts as many as 400 IT jobs at risk.

That's a scary prospect for anyone to face, but the company, which is based in Connecticut and Massachusetts and operates New England's largest energy delivery system, is also saying that a final decision has not been made. Where does that leave the utility's IT employees and IT department?

With this move, NU may be prompting its best IT employees to head for the exits, so there's a real possibility that key positions will become vacant. A morale-crushing announcement like that must make it difficult to lead an IT organization.

The announcement also creates a situation potentially rife with IT security risks, since disgruntled employees are considered a top threat in any organization.

When you consider all the risks that NU is inviting, this heads up to employees in advance of a concrete plan is "kind of mind-bogglingly stupid, [especially] since this is IT of all places," said David Lewis, who heads OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Conn.-based human resources consulting firm.

But Lewis and others aren't discounting the idea that NU's internal announcement to IT employees is deliberate and calculated. Keeping details incomplete and uncertain is destabilizing. Employees will begin job hunts and contact recruiters, said Christine Santacroce, business development manager at Modis IT Staffing in Hartford, Conn. She said she has already heard from some NU developers.

As IT workers leave in advance of the outsourcing threat, it may reduce the number of severance packages that NU has to offer people, saving the company some money.

But if employee departures lead to destabilization, then the need to embrace outsourcing "becomes self-fulfilling," said Santacroce. With the IT department falling apart, she explained, NU might say, "We really need to do something to secure the business" and bring in the outsourcers.

Lewis said such a scenario involves "artificial attrition," where "you are creating a run to the door before anything is announced." That could be the company's strategy, he said, adding that that's the only explanation he can see for the way NU has handled its potential move to outsourcing -- unless there's some legal requirement that energy utilities must announce openly that they're considering outsourcing. "I'm not saying it makes any sense, but you can see it as a strategy," he said.

NU's plans are triggering a backlash. Connecticut's state attorney general has asked for information and meetings, and political leaders, in particular State Rep. and Connecticut House majority leader Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin, Southington), are urging NU not to eliminate the jobs. But Aresimowicz is uncertain how much success the state will have.

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