Homers: Secrets on the Factory Floor

Homers are things you make for personal use while on company time. Professor Michel Anteby says that although the practice might be illegal, some companies secretly endorse it. Here's why.
by Sean Silverthorne

A factory worker uses company time and materials to fashion a lamp he will take home for personal use—an artifact called a "homer." The practice is probably illegal and clearly against written company policy. If discovered, the worker could be fired on the spot for his action.

The consequences of homer making seem cut and dried. But not so fast, says Harvard Business School assistant professor Michel Anteby. In interviews with retirees of the French Pierreville aeronautics plant, Anteby found, perhaps not surprisingly, a veil of secrecy around the practice—but also a quiet complicity between workers and management.

Perhaps most surprising of all, Anteby argues, is that the practice may help some organizations be more effective. Homer making keeps teams together and skills sharp during idle times in the highly cyclic aeronautics business, for example. Also, someone's well-crafted homer can be a source of pride when fellow workers take note. Says Anteby: "If employers are able to tap into these drivers, and remain within the legal boundary, then they might be in a better position to allow their employees to blossom."

Anteby's "Factory 'Homers': Understanding a Highly Elusive, Marginal, and Illegal Practice" will be published in a forthcoming issue of Sociologie du Travail.

Sean Silverthorne: What are homers and how prevalent is the practice? Can you give some examples?

Michel Anteby: Homers are artifacts produced for personal use by factory employees on company time, with company material and/or tools. The origin of the term is unclear but probably refers to the fact that these artifacts are brought home. In the French aeronautics plant I studied, cutlery, toys, and decorative artifacts (such as engine blades mounted on wood) were common, alongside the official engine productions.

Many craft industries, specifically metal industries, have traditions of homer making. In a recent survey conducted in France, 28 percent of male factory workers reported that on the job they frequently or occasionally manufactured "something" or did a job not designated for their employer. In 40 percent of these cases, that "something" was an object. Homer making is not, however, a French phenomenon—court proceedings of fired homer makers point to its prevalence in North America as well. Also, beyond factories and in other industries, the concept of a homer might take on other forms (e.g., an office worker typing a personal letter on his or her computer while at work).

Q: Since the practice of employees using company time and resources to create personal products at work is arguably illegal and certainly forbidden by most companies, why do employers—or at least supervisors—apparently tolerate the practice by looking the other way?

A: Managers, executives, and supervisors are mostly well aware of the practice. They often turn a blind eye toward it because they directly and indirectly benefit from it. On a personal level, they might order homers or request some for their friends. Also, on the organizational level, effectiveness might be improved. The company might get more from its employees when it gives them more: In this case, for instance, allowing employees to conduct homer work in exchange for added efforts when official production demands it.

homer lamp
A homer lamp made
by a blacksmith
© Michel Anteby

For those readers familiar with the HBS teaching case called "Slade," homer making functions a lot like the informal punching-out system depicted at Slade in which a group of self-regulated workers punch the time-cards of their teammates and are quite effective at their job.

Q: You note that much silence surrounds the practice of creating homers. Why is the practice not discussed more openly by employers and others?

A: Homer making first raises the issue of moral judgment. From an external perspective, the illegality of the practice and its misalignment with official organizational goals might be most salient. Thus, the topic of homer making puts the person disclosing it in a position of vulnerability, one in which hasty judgment is likely.

The unusual coalition of labor and management around homer making suggests many nuances surrounding the practice, one in which judgment is anything but hasty. All participants find incentives to engage in or cover up for homer making, yet when openly disclosed their participation could be typecast in a very different manner. For instance, unions might depict a supervisor as incompetent if homer making occurs in his shop. And management could call a worker a thief on the basis of homer making. The consequences of disclosure are unpredictable since the concept of homer making lends itself to so many interpretations. Silence therefore prevails.

Q: Given the secrecy surrounding homers, how difficult was it for you to do your research?

A: This is the part I loved most about this research. I was, at first, annoyed that some people refused to speak to me. Being somewhat stubborn, I was more energized to pursue this topic the more unanswered questions I placed. Silence, in my opinion, indicates something important is at stake. I overcame these hurdles by first investing time in getting to know these workers, then by ensuring anonymity to informants (a standard practice in ethnographies), and finally by convincing the plant labor council (an employee elected body) that my intentions were neither destructive nor judgmental. The labor council granted me access to its list of retirees, and, to this day, I cannot thank them enough.

Q: What was the reception you got while interviewing Pierreville retirees?

A: Whereas the initial reception was cautious, the ensuing months and years proved most welcoming. From the perspective of many craftsmen in this plant (such as blacksmiths and welders), these artifacts embody their professional identity. Within limits, homers can be seen as pride symbols. If a blacksmith is able to create a lighting fixture from one sheet of metal and his peers respect his craftsmanship, then he has nothing to be ashamed of; quite the contrary.

Moreover, a gradual shift towards computer-aided design made these craftsmen less relevant to the design and manufacture of new engines. A new population of office workers trained on such software was taking on work that used to be done in the workshops. The seemingly anecdotal homers encapsulated micro-struggles for recognition, ones in which the identity threats that craftsmen were facing were challenged. These artifacts echoed broader occupational and industrial shifts that many workers were eager to discuss. Obviously, some individuals remained suspicious and avoided me. The vast majority of retirees, however, always welcomed me warmly.

Q: Are there practical implications for your research in terms of thinking about employer-employee relations?

A: The aeronautics industry has undergone ups and downs in the past decades: Large orders of planes (and engines) and their cancellation can create prosperity or wreak havoc in these concentrated labor markets. This research surfaces the implicit social contracts between employer and employees that has probably partly allowed the industry to survive. Periods of idleness might coexist with intense overtime. During these times, outcomes that might appear minor—such as these homers—help sustain organizational effectiveness and the capacity workers have to create.

The unusual coalition of labor and management around homer making suggests many nuances surrounding the practice.

At the end of my period of study, a new turn-gate was installed at the main exit of the plant. The idea was perhaps to regulate the outgoing flow of workers, but also probably to ensure that no large artifacts were brought out. While this turn-gate made a lot of sense, I still wonder about the overall impact of the gate on organizational effectiveness. If homers are to be banned, what other forms of social regulations might replace them? And if none, how beneficial is this turn-gate to the company? To this day, I am not sure I can answer that question.

This research also raises the issue of gray zones in organizations. The trading of mutual funds once the market has officially cleared, the retribution by music publishers to radio station programmers for playing specific songs, or creative accounting techniques to hide financial losses suggest that gray zones strive in contemporary organizations. The more interesting question is why do supposedly rationally designed and professionally managed organizations sustain such gray zones? This research suggests focusing on occupational identities as potential drivers for these practices. If employers are able to tap into these drivers, and remain within the legal boundary, then they might be in a better position to allow their employees to blossom.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have always been intrigued by the dynamics, and oftentimes tensions that individuals might experience in organizations. Whereas craftsmen in the aeronautics plant I studied dealt with these tensions in a very peculiar manner—by creating artifacts—other populations react differently.

Contingent workers by choice (such as highly skilled professionals), for instance, offer an extreme example of distancing from organizational tensions: They simply decide to work on their own. Naomi Rothman—a colleague at New York University—and I are analyzing data on contingent workers and are trying to understand their resilience mechanisms. Belonging to an organization might create tensions, but going without formal organizational membership also has its challenges.

I am also looking forward to opening new fields on organizational gray zones. Gray zones operate at the intersection of the legal and illegal boundary. I welcome suggestions from readers as to particular instances of gray zones in their own organizations, and encourage them to contact me.