Homers range from a lamp fashioned on the factory floor to a personal letter typed on the company computer.
Among craft industries, particularly in the metal trades, homer-making is a tradition. In a recent poll, more than a quarter of male factory workers reported making something on the job that wasn’t for their employer.
Harvard Business School assistant professor Michel Anteby has explored the practice by interviewing retired French metalworkers. He found that leaders of all stripes—managers, supervisors, executives—know about homer-making, and most ignore it. But why?
- It might improve job performance. The organization may reap more from people when it gives them more—a classic quid pro quo.
Example: The aeronautics industry often undergoes sharp ups and downs as large orders of planes come in or are canceled. An implicit social contract between employers and employees may let workers make homers during periods of idleness in exchange for long hours during crunch times.
- It could prevent strife. The silence of labor and about homers seems deliberate. Everybody has an incentive to keep quiet. If the subject blew open, managers might depict their workers as thieves, and workers might depict their supervisors as incompetent. The consequences are so unpredictable, in fact, that silence seems to keep the peace.
- It may boost morale. Especially among craftspeople, homers may represent their professional identity. Letting people make homers might reinforce their pride in the organization and themselves. Not letting them do it could seem a sign of disrespect.
— Adapted from “Homers: Secrets on the Factory Floor,” Sean Silverthorne, HBS Working Knowledge, http://hbswk.hbs.edu.