TSMC — Giving employees their lives back

By Ching-Hsuan Huang

Tick tock! The minute and hour hands indicate that the clock has just struck 6 p.m.

“Time to head home,” says Morris Chang, chairman of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Ltd., as he slowly rises from his seat, takes his wife Sophie Chang’s hand, and ambles out of the office. For years a culture of ultra-long working hours had been deeply insinuating itself within technology companies throughout Taiwan. It wasn’t long before the philosophy behind such platitudes as “If you strive, you’ll win!” and “Working hard is an achievement in itself” evolved into “death from overwork.” When the tragic phenomenon became a common staple of news headlines, it rattled TSMC chief Chang. In 2009, an entry-level engineer’s letter of resignation landed directly in the TSMC chairman’s mailbox, and its contents would send shockwaves throughout the company. The letter outlined in great detail the outrageous overtime hours that had come to be expected of the company’s engineers, infuriating the top TSMC executive, who demanded a re-evaluation of the company’s management structure. “I said we don’t need to make our employees work this hard. But they still weren’t entirely convinced. Some believed what I really meant was that the harder people worked, the better,” Chang recalls. That’s when he decided it was time to start telling everyone his own story. “Over the past 50 years my workweek has seldom if ever exceeded 50 hours, whether working as an entry-level engineer, company president or chairman,” Chang says, adding: “If a person works such long hours every day, can you really have faith in the quality of work accomplished in those last few hours?” Beginning last year, Chang has sought to drive change through a gentle yet constant reiteration of a principle of “life, work, and commitment.”

Chang also chose to address these themes outside the company, when delivering a speech at National Central University. The initially skeptical and circumspect TSMC employees eventually began to believe, to act and, indeed, to change. In less than six months, the average workweek among TSMC employees was reduced from more than 50 hours per week to just 50, and this despite the fact that some units had exceeded that number due to work on seasonal or special time-sensitive projects. Encountering familiar faces while walking through the TSMC campus, company vice president for human resources L.C. Tu is always asked one question: “Can the 50-hour workweek really be done?” Outside company grounds, on university campuses, the 50-hour workweek remains a topic of conversation. On a recent recruiting tour, J.K. Wang — TSMC’s vice president for operations/300 mm (12-inch) fabs — visited the campus of National Cheng Kung University. When he met with professors, the first subject they mentioned centered on the 50-hour workweek.

As economies recover, global competition is spurring efforts to protect and retain valuable human resource assets. In this context, creating an improved corporate culture and better working conditions has clearly become even more important.