Now it's sex and drugs and writing code

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The Independent Culture
A job as a computer programmer or systems analyst has long been seen as one with a career path leading down the road to Dullsville. But a new survey has found that boozing and bonking are rife in the IT department. Lynne Curry reports.

Sex among the terminals, drunkenness in the office and bum-pinching in the corridors - it seems the new lad has arrived in the IT department. No longer content with upsetting his peers by tossing down a set of car keys indicating the Porsche parked outside (the cardinal sin of the flash git freelance) or wearing Jesus sandals and jeans to work (the cardinal sin of his "I'm my own boss" colleague), temporary IT people are said to be showing more sophisticated signs of decadence, such as turning up drunk and having sex at work.

The high earners of the matt grey world of analysing and programming, whose skills are usually unintelligible to the rest of us (being in double Dutch or capital letters), IT contractors have up to now been seen as more Reginald Perrin than Marlon Brando; the perceived dullness of their professional lives has put off droves of bright graduates.

The new, swaggering, womanising veneer comes courtesy of one of the industry's regular surveys. Elan Computing's six UK branches asked its customers their most common reasons for showing contractors the door. Besides sheer incompetence - cited by 89 per cent of respondents - and being late, more than a third mentioned sexual harassment and drunkenness at work, and a quarter had got rid of contractors who used the placement as an opportunity for an illicit sexual fling.

Almost half the 60 companies surveyed had sacked contractors for being unwilling to become part of the team, and two talked of finding IT temps asleep in the lavatories. The catalogue of decline and defiance went on: one contractor was fired for "borrowing" a senior manager's car without permission, and crashing it. Another was escorted to the door for running an escort agency from his desk during working hours. One freelance was sacked for "trouble with the police"; another because he smelt, which "became increasingly offensive to other staff".

Peter Anthony, Elan's UK sales and marketing director, denies that the responses indicate that standards of behaviour are dropping, or that contractors are adopting a cavalier attitude. "We place 200 contractors a month and fewer than 1 per cent are terminated, which is less than the market average. I don't say that the problem is worsening, but as the skills shortage increases, it's a possibility that people need to be aware of.

"If standards are dropping, it's because there is poaching and gazumping, and contractors are getting phone calls in the middle of their contracts encouraging them to breach their contract and leave early for what is perceived to be a better job."

Andy Baker, chief executive of Glotel, a neighbour of Elan's, says he is astonished at its findings. "People do get sacked. I worked in four different pubs and I was sacked from one of them for turning up late and not being bothered about the landlord," he says. "Human beings do drink, and get involved in sexual liaisons where they work. But contractors are ambassadors for the agencies they work for, and if they've been referenced properly and checked properly, and they've worked for the agency on other occasions, these things aren't typical.

"But there are more and more agencies coming into this market, and a lot of them aren't doing their job properly," Baker continues. "That causes a quality problem; even big-name agencies don't work the right way; they're phone hogs, and take on used-car salesmen types as recruiters, and they don't give the industry a good name.

"A lot of companies don't even meet their contractors and don't bother screening them," Baker claims. "Ascertaining whether somebody is a drunken pervert is possible by the human eye. You can also tell something about them if, say, they've had six jobs in two years, which would be a lot when, usually, a six-month contract is extended.

"If you had a permanent member of staff working for you for a couple of years and he went out at lunchtime and came back smashed at four in the afternoon, you'd forgive him, because you can't just sack a permanent member of staff," Baker points out. "Typically, contractors are sacked because they can be."

A West Midlands freelance, who does not wish to be named, says he has seen two colleagues sacked for fiddling their clocking hours, one for putting pornography on to the Internet and one for taking swigs from a plastic bottle of whisky throughout the day. "But that's in 20 years. What I've noticed in the last 12 months is freelances terminating their contracts early.'' Employers are using "golden handcuffs'', he says, to ensure they do not slip off early to another contract.