Your employer is not the enemy

TroopsHelicopterOK then. First one to leave a comment about Mike Ashley/Sports Direct wins a prize!

But seriously, I’m not writing this for people who are in an unfortunate economic position. This article is for the professionals out there.

You guys work in offices, you probably have degrees and I’d imagine you put the hours in. You are the engineers, the solicitors, the accountants and the consultants. You are the people who feel that ‘life is not great’ but you would not dare to utter those words in front of a group of young men who earn minimum wage for fear that you would be beaten to death for being such an ungrateful wealthy person.

As you’re on my website which is about getting rid of your job in order to live intentionally, I bet there’s a good chance that you’re currently thinking about ways of breaking free from your employer’s clutches.

A battle plan

If you are looking for a way out of the 9-5, you might have been brainstorming a plan for pulling it off for some time.

I can imagine the mental model you might be using to visualise your escape. I’m picturing one of those operations rooms you see on war films where plotters are pushing little tanks around a map with whatever those little slidy prodder things are called.

OpsRoom

[Image taken from http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/sites/b/boulmer/index22.html – Credit: Nick Catford]

In your case, the tanks might represent financial resources, while the infantry is the side-business you’ve been working on.

Everybody who is trying to pull off a job-free existence will have a different plan. However, I’m willing to bet that there’s a common thread that runs through most of them.

You are trying to defeat the enemy: The Man. You are trying to subvert The System. You are trying to escape from The Prison Camp. You want to get the hell out of Dodge and they won’t see you for dust.

I accept that, in some circumstances, that might well seem like the only way you could possibly see it, and, let’s be honest, I don’t know all of the unique details of your situation.

However, Employer as Enemy, is probably not the most constructive way of framing the situation you find yourself in. In fact, later in the article, I’m going to argue that your current job could be a rich untapped seam of resources which could really help you with your quest for freedom.

But first, let’s start with a minor detour into some human condition mumbo jumbo. I promise to stick it all back together again shortly.

Self interest

Here is a universal fact of life: everybody acts in (what they perceive to be) their own best interests. Every stolen office biro, donation to Cancer Research or remembering of a wedding anniversary can be explained by this fact.

When somebody is a ‘giving person’, it’s because behaving in this way makes their life a happier experience than if they behaved differently.

Repeat after me:

There is no such thing as selflessness.

That doesn’t mean that people aren’t ‘genuine’ or that they necessarily lack integrity but they will look out for themselves (and by extension, their close genetic relatives and child rearing partners) first.

This is the lense that you need to use to examine your relationship with your employer.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Respect

It may be true that, despite having a written contract which states that you are expected to work 40 hours every week, you are in fact pressured to work 55 hours instead.

Maybe you think

How can they do this to me? This just isn’t decent. It’s not cricket.

But you’ve made the classic mistake. You think you have a ‘right’ (whatever that means) to be respected.

Now, if you worked for me, I guarantee that you would be treated with respect and I would abide by whatever written contract we had signed.

I can state this with confidence because, on the odd occasions in my life where I’ve not abided by the Golden Rule (don’t even dream of bullshitting me and saying you’ve never made such a slip) I have felt extreme guilt and remorse.

That is, failing to treat another human being in a way which I expect to be treated made my life worse and so it was definitively an action against my self-interest.

The problem is, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t have such guilt reactions. In the extreme case, there are many sociopaths out there. The mere existence of such people renders the ‘I have a right to X’ approach to getting what you want out of working relationships ineffective at best.

So, what is a good way of characterising your relationship with The Man?

A Venn diagram

Obviously, as a nerd, it is my duty to resort to drawing Venn diagrams to explain my next point!

If you are currently in a situation where the requirements of your job determine the shape of your life and you can’t escape because you have kids, need the money, have no other income sources and no savings, this is the degree to which your interests align with those of your boss/employer (the green bit in the middle represents your mutual self-interest):

Venn1

As we can see from the expertly-drawn diagram, the reason that you are not treated in a manner which you think is appropriate is that your employer/boss has no reason to do so.

Let’s go back to my previous statement:

There is no such thing as selflessness.

If your boss/line manager/employer is somewhat rational, they will act in a manner which they perceive as providing the most benefits to them.  In some cases, they might be people who experience things like compassion, guilt and remorse so it will be against their interests to treat you too harshly. On the other hand, maybe not!

So, if you want to be treated differently, relying on your counterparty’s benevolence or decency is not exactly a surefire way of achieving it.

Instead, you need to work out how to move those circles so that they overlap more.

Reduce your dependency

First of all, it would help if the statement ‘you need £3000 on the 25th of every month’ wasn’t true any more. There are a few ways of achieving this. I’d suggest you do all of them, but making a start on any one of them will help.

The fact of reality that you’re addressing by doing these things is that your boss treats you the way she does because she can (as it’s in her interests and you have no alternatives).

As soon as this fact isn’t true any more, you can start to push back. You can start to say ‘no’.

At this point, to gently encourage you to reduce your dependency on your employer in order to help you feel less inclined to unquestioningly do as you’re told, I’m going to throw in a little bit of a tough love rant:

 You are NOT being bent over. You bent over voluntarily by making the choices that you made.

You bent over when you bought an iPhone or went on holiday despite not having a few tens of thousands of pounds saved up. You bent over when you decided to rely on your employer as a single source of income. You bend over every time you just say ‘yes boss’ even if she’s being unreasonable.

If you don’t like what happens when you bend over, then (wo)man the fuck up and stop bending over!

Aaahhhh. Now I feel better.

It’s really important to take this step. However, this is only the ‘defending yourself from the bad things’ half of the story. In my opinion, there’s a far more exciting piece to this jigsaw: learning to use the situation to make more good things happen in the long run.

Increase your value

In the first diagram, you’ll notice that a couple of the blobs representing your boss/employer’s interests were related to making the business perform better or them getting recognition from their boss/shareholders. So, to further align your interests with those of your boss, you could always look for ways of helping them get what they want.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean by looking at how somebody in my professional situation could achieve this.

You might remember that I’m an engineer by profession. My contribution to a company then is usually as part of what you might call a ‘cost centre’. Research and development departments suck in a lot of money which is invested (often quite speculatively) in developing products which may, at some point in the future, make a profit.

As irrational as it sounds, when you’re in such a position, your boss/the directors/the shareholders will probably have a mental model of your role as a ‘pure cost’. If they were to zoom out and see the big picture, they would see that this is obviously nonsense (there would be no products without engineers), but they won’t!

You don’t win contracts. You don’t bring in prospects. You don’t promote the business.

You only cost money, you do not attract any money.

In order to increase your own value in the eyes of your employer, you could always try to visibly change this situation.

For example

Here’s an example which might work for an engineer like me.

You could arrange to do some extra, uncompensated work with a sales rep by helping him out with a couple of sales meetings. You might have to give up a weekend day or work unpaid overtime in order to do this. This could be pitched to your boss as doubly beneficial for the company:

  • You can learn more about what customers want first-hand to help you to design future products which really solve their problems
  • You can provide much deeper technical insight than the sales rep is capable of providing which will help your customers to see the benefits of the product

If you can help the sales rep to improve upon their performance and make the company more profitable, you will be noticed. You will have an advocate (the sales rep) and you will have proved that you are not ‘just another engineer’.

You will have differentiated yourself. You will no longer be simply a ‘unit’ which can be replaced easily with another engineer (as most engineers hate sales guys and would do anything to never have to speak to a customer). This will elevate you above the rank of ‘mere engineer’ and into the lofty heights of ‘engineer with sales skills’.

Now your requests for remote working or a more flexible schedule are far less likely to be ignored. Imagine being in the position of ‘most profitable <insert job title>’ in the company and having a year’s living expenses in the bank and having a £1k per month side business. Would you still be taking any shit? I doubt it.

Surely you can see that increasing and diversifying the value you provide to your employer/boss also has a massive side-benefit…

You need them less, but they want you more

By going beyond your ‘job description’ you might have impressed people who directly benefitted. They now have a completely new reason to want to keep you around, above and beyond what they originally employed you for – it directly helps make the company more profitable and pay for their kids’ private school fees.

But beyond that, you had to acquire new skills to do it.

And this is where I’m going to come back to the article’s title:

Your employer is not the enemy

Let’s not forget that, (I imagine) you still want to ditch the job. But by giving you the opportunity to make yourself more valuable to them, your employer has also allowed you to increase your human capital. A fact which you can later capitalise upon in order to stop needing a job altogether.

In my engineering example above, the engineer would have learned more about the sales process and thus be in a much better position to be able to sell her self if she decided to go freelance later on.

Other examples of such win-win-win propositions include

  • If your company has an awful website which gets no traffic and hence produces few sales, persuade the boss to let you figure out how to do something about it. You get to learn about how websites work. You might get to chat to some web designers/developers. You can learn a bit about SEO and content marketing. All of these skills/contacts can directly benefit your side-business/freelance career by enabling you to build/commission a good sales website.
  • If your company is short of suitable staff but is struggling to recruit, use your network of old university friends and some imaginative marketing techniques to help them out. You get to go through the motions (and experience the pitfalls) of hiring somebody. Every CV you see can also be mined for the contact details of each of the candidate’s previous employers (who might be suitable targets when marketing your own freelance services in the future). If you ever need to scale your side-business up or delegate some freelance work later, you won’t be a ‘hiring virgin’. You may also have collected a vast database of potential freelance clients.
  • If your company is wasting thousands of pounds per month on unnecessary electricity and cooling costs (because they have inefficient practices), come up with a way of making a quantifiable, provable dent in the problem. You get to learn about running a business efficiently. These skills can help you out with both your personal finances and making your side-business viable.

There are literally thousands of ways of using your current job situation to achieve these benefits:

(i) increasing your value to your employer and;

(ii) making yourself more able to fend for yourself later

I could sit here churning out examples all day, but I think you get the point.

So, instead of thinking of your current employer as a foe who will be defeated by your cunning plan, try to see them as a potential ally. Perhaps you’ll have to put in some up-front effort in order to make your interests align with theirs more completely before that is the case, but it should pay off in the long-term.

Oh, and don’t forget the elephant in the room: most people who go freelance later (me included) get a high proportion of their initial assignments from a previous employer.

In conclusion

Your employer is not an enemy who you want to defeat. Your boss/the company owner is acting according to his own self-interest, just like you, the Pope and I do.

To achieve a working relationship which is more satisfactory to you, you need to give the people in control some reasons to give you what you want (i.e. align their interests with your interests).

There are two main ways of achieving this:

  • Put yourself in a position where you need them less and then learn to stand your ground
  • Make them value you more by, wait for it… providing more value

In pictorial form, you need to turn this situation…

Venn2

…into this situation

Venn3

Lastly, as well as persuading your employer to treat you better in the near-term, learning how to add more value to their business is a useful experience in and of itself which can also help you to get what you want in the long run, such as a life of freedom and autonomy.

Your turn

Let me know what you think. Have you ever thought ‘outside the box’ to increase the value you provide to your employer?

Perhaps the situation at your workplace is just too toxic to even consider doing something like this.

What about the entrepreneurs out there? Do you remember having a particular job just for the opportunity to learn whilst somebody else swallowed all the risk?

Don’t be shy – leave a comment!


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

10 thoughts on “Your employer is not the enemy

  1. I bought a pair of shoes last month on line from a company that was not Sports Direct (deliberately), but they turned up with the Sports Direct warehouse as the return address….they spoofed me and I feel a bit dirty now 🙁

    Does that count?

    PS: Liked the post, but I’m far too much of a post-50 burn-out case to get excited about anything job-related now (apart from retiring).

    1. Yep, that counts! Unfortunately the prize is just me saying ‘Yep, that counts!’. Well done though.

      I don’t think that I could ever generally be that excited about ‘anything job-related’ for its own sake, unemployable as I am. All my advice here was definitely intended as a means to an end, i.e. using the job to get the skills, contacts etc to eventually not need it any more.

      I hope the finishing straight to retirement isn’t too much longer for you.

      Thanks for commenting and well done for winning again!

  2. Hi PC.

    It sounds like your experience has been similar to mine in that removing the job dynamic but keeping the work makes it all feel less ‘master vs servant’.

    I think that ‘some financial independence’ is really all anybody needs if they’ve got the chops to feeds themselves outside the confines of a job. That’s where I am (we could probably last for 3 years with no income at a push before we were in a mess).

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I think your chances of realigning the Venn diagram are better if you work for a smaller firm.
    For example I spent a few years as a laboratory manager for a flavor company and it was a pleasurable part of my job to call on major clients with the salesperson. I had a much better rapport with the customer’s technical staff and often I could see the way to meet customer needs just as well if not better. This company had about 30 employees so not a lot of fat was in the structure.
    On the other hand I spent many hours at Unilever as the go-to guy helping out our Consumer Response helpline with the tough product questions – mostly by email. I never even advertised the fact I did this because my boss would likely have told me to cut it out and stick to my real job. A lot of senior execs in Unilever didn’t even consider the end consumer to be a customer.
    I have a friend who as a retired RCMP security officer became the #1 salesman in a home security company. At a banquet honoring him as salesperson of the year his boss announced (in public) that they were going to increase my pal’s sales quota by 20% next year. They were shocked when he resigned and retired on the spot. Sometimes the overlap on the Venn diagram is smaller than you think.

    1. I definitely agree on the smaller firm idea.

      The levers are definitely more easily in reach at small companies. In fact, one thing that I often suggest to people who want to escape the ‘corporate grind’ into eventual self-employment is that trying to land a job in a smaller enterprise might be a good interim step.

  4. First off, let me say that I agree with everything you’ve written. I’ve seen too many people who claim they are victims of systemic unfairness at their workplace (my boss doesn’t like me, I’m not like them public schoolboys, the workload is excessive, I’m the only one here with any proper technical knowledge in [insert a filed of expertise] but they don’t get it, etc., etc., etc.). These same people tend to be incapable of taking an honest look at themselves. The best advise anyone can give them is to quit whingeing and play the hand they’ve been dealt (although you’ve put it in much gentler terms in your blog post) 😉
    I work with decent people, for decent people at a decent establishment, my boss doesn’t drive you up the wall, I’m more than adequately compensated, any work-related frustrations are mostly transient, the work is challenging, I can travel if I want to but it’s not strictly a requirement. I know that objectively speaking I have it good (and this has’t always been the case, so I know what I’m talking about).
    And yet I view work differently from you. For me work isn’t a source of happiness or satisfaction in and of itself. It is something that I have to do because I need the money so I make an effort to derive satisfaction from it. For instance, I feel happy when I’m learning new things so I actively seek out professional development opportunities (I don’t know if the exec team take this as a sign of my devotion to achieving excellence in my field). To me, it’s a sort of a self-imposed temporary Stockholm complex. The same human survival reflex drives inmates to decorate their cells with posters, visit the prison library and form friendships with other inmates.
    I’m making the best I can of the here and now, but as soon as the doors open, I’m out.

    1. Thanks for your kind words.

      I have to admit that, when friends lament their work circumstances, I do sometimes feel like shaking them and saying ‘and what are you doing about that situation?’ but, it usually falls on deaf ears. Most people aren’t willing to effect changes – they just want to vent.

      I think you might have read between the lines a bit too much about my love of paid work.

      I do love the act of creating things but I don’t necessarily like working for money per se. That’s kind of one of the reasons that I have a website that teaches people how to boost their work efficiency through entrepreneurship (and hence work far less).

      At the moment, working directly for money takes up about 40% of what most would consider a ‘full-time schedule’ for me. I suppose I’ve bought into one premise of the FI community (you should work less in total) but I’ve just decided to spread the work across my adult life, rather than going hell for leather for the next few years so I never have to work after the age of 40.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment!

  5. I get what you explained, yet I can’t seem to get it to work for my situation. I think right now I burned out so badly that I can’t seem to even get the motivation to try and reach outside of my typical boundaries to make myself more valuable in the company.

    I’ve actually seen the opposite effect, of an employee trying to help beyond their usual duty, being threatened for doing it, because he could have used the extra time to help his team more. Yes, the manager literally told him: “if you’re ok working for free for the company on weekends, you should do it for our projects, not theirs”. You imagine the result: an overachieving employee who stopped working extra hours and started looking at other jobs. I personally am so close to FI that right now my approach is to do as little as possible until I hit my number. Sadly, I’ve been waiting for almost a year now and my investments are not taking me there as fast as I initially assumed it would (“one more month” dragged into “2 more years” due to the USD/JPY falling 20% in 10 months – I intend to retire in Japan)

    1. You can’t legislate for arseholes!

      Although people act in their perceived self-interest, a lot still don’t get what is in their actual self-interest (hence the manager inadvertently incentivising the ‘good’ employee to become a ‘bad’ employee or look for another job). I understand that my advice is a lot more applicable to small companies than ‘Dilbertesque’ corporate situations.

      In that situation, I’d be out of there like a shot. With a big stash behind me, I’d just try to do something independent straight away. If not, I’d look for a job in a much smaller company where it’s far more obvious how your actions affect the bottom line (and hence value-adding behaviour is more likely to be rewarded).

      I hear what you’re saying about the USD/JPY issue. Perhaps it’s time to focus on things you can change??

      Thanks for dropping by and I wish you the best of luck with the last bit of your FI journey.

  6. Totally agree Andy (no shock there)

    Despite having numerous rants about work in general on my blog i genuinely don’t think they are bad guys and are obviously just doing what in their best interest.

    However I feel like I’ve done all of the making myself indispensable stuff a few years ago and now I’ve got a bit of cash behind me I’m playing the stop pushing me around card much more, which lets face it is much more fun. Having said that your point on learning new stuff for my own benefit is a very good one, so maybe there is still an opportunity there to align our goals slightly back together again. Thanks for the thought provoking post as usual!

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