This past summer, a former colleague wrote about finding and almost immediately leaving her dream job. It’s an emotionally difficult read in a lot of ways, but it’s worth digging into some of her observations, because they represent fairly universal truths.
Now look: this isn’t an easy thing to read. It wasn’t easy to write. And you must understand that the article you’re about to read isn’t meant to endorse the system we all work in, nor is it intended to justify that system. It’s simply meant to describe it. We all play a game of sorts in the work world, and it’s critical that we understand the rules of that game. We don’t get to make those rules, but we’re bound by them. We’re really only in danger when we think the rules are other than what they are.
So let’s begin.
I want to start by pointing out that capitalism was a word popularized by Karl Marx, and it wasn’t, as you might guess, meant as a compliment. In a capitalist society—such as the United States—the world is run by the people who own the capital. That’s the people who own businesses, and who have all the money. They set the rules of the game. As I’ve written before (see the 8-June-2021 article, “Understanding the Machine Against Which We Rage”), capitalists have some specific things they want, mainly to increase the amount of capital they have.
Business owners aren’t always the capitalists in control of things: when you start a business, for example, and you accept investment money from someone else, you’re ceding some portion of control over your business. You’re no longer able to operate strictly by your own rules; your investors’ rules start to carry real weight, because they gave you capital.
Control over a business—the right to set the business’ tone, purpose, and direction—goes to whomever has the most at risk in the business. Investors, who contribute money to a business with no guarantee they’ll every get any money back, are at-risk. Ergo, they get a lot of control. Bootstrapped founders, who often finance their businesses through things like second mortgages or credit card debt, get a lot of control because they’re at-risk. If you have no risk in the business, if you have no “skin in the game,” then your priorities don’t matter.
The truth is our capitalistic societies put profit and growth over everything, including the employees who get the organizations to where they are.
That is indeed a truth. The people who pumped money into a business did so in order to get that money, and lots more, back out of it at some point, and so profit and growth are the primary driver of capitalistic societies. Most capitalists lose money on many of their investments, and so they need the successful ones to be really successful. Employees aren’t prioritized because they don’t have any skin in the game.
Sure, you may be passionate about what a company does, but that doesn’t put you at-risk—it doesn’t make you a capitalist. Yeah, maybe some smaller, bootstrapped, self-sufficient companies can afford to put their employees above profit and growth—but those companies aren’t plentiful. If they’re too successful, they risk being bought up by capitalists who see the potential to make them bigger.
This all probably sounds depressing and fatalistic, but you don’t have to take it that way. It’s simply how it works. It’s entirely possible to be happy, successful, and fulfilled in a capitalist society: you just need to know how the system works, and have practical expectations of it.
Incidentally, let me address something: you may think that all employees are “at-risk” because any of us can lose our jobs at any time due to a wide range of unforeseeable circumstances; the recent COVID pandemic made that abundantly clear to many of us. But that isn’t what “at-risk” means, unfortunately.
As an employee—as someone in a business who is not at-risk—you should think of yourself as a vendor. You’re hired to perform a service, and you are paid a fee. Most of us are paid quite frequently, often monthly, twice a month, or even weekly. Our level of risk only extends until our next paycheck: once we’ve been paid for the work we’ve done, our risk disappears, and we’re on to a new pay period. Few of us have any guarantee of employment. Even in many European countries, layoffs are absolutely a thing, even though there are a lot more guardrails around how they’re executed.
Roberta also wrote:
For instance, despite all of our good intentions that departments like HR and legal are there for one simple thing: to protect the business.
Yup. Now, a great HR department (or “People Team” or whatever you like) may have the time and budget to help with professional development, building diversity, and other positive things, but at the end of the day, they’re employees being paid a fee to perform a service. That service will always boil down to “protecting the company.” Ditto with the lawyers. That doesn’t in any way make them bad: it’s what they were hired to do. Many, many, many people end up having to perform job duties that they wouldn’t personally want to do, because it’s their job. I’ve had to lay people off. I didn’t enjoy it, but it was very explicitly part of what I agreed to potentially deal with in exchange for my salary. Part of my job is also to try and avoid getting into that situation in the first place, and I try to do that part of my job very very well.
You may love your coworkers, but they aren’t the business. You may be passionate about what you do, but that may not be what creates the outcomes the business desires. You may love your company’s stated mission, but… look, it’s not unusual for “stated missions” to be little more than marketing slogans. As Roberta notes:
It has taught me the importance of gauging company values before joining a team – not only what is said, but the actions that are carried out on a daily basis.
Testify. If you’re going to work for a company, you need to look at the outcomes the company is actually creating. You need to understand them the way a business analyst might understand them, and truly comprehend what outcomes the business’ at-risk parties—the investors and other capitalists—are trying to achieve. That can sometimes be difficult to ascertain, but it’s worth digging. Look up other people—social media!!—who work for the company, and engage in a healthy dialogue about what they’re experiencing. Use it as a chance to expand your professional network (and theirs), and ask meaningful questions. Don’t rely solely on sites like Indeed or Glassdoor; like Yelp, those reviews are too easily manipulated and often come from a place of bias.
And above all, remember that as an employee, you are being paid a fee to provide a service, nothing more. There is no other relationship, express or implied, between you and your employer. You’re not entitled to anything other than what was enumerated in your offer letter. You’re not even entitled to expect high values or a noble mission from your employer. That’s okay. Remember, in a capitalist society you also have the option of starting your own business, taking on risk, and running it however you see fit. Few people do so, in large part because of the risk involved, and because many of us simply never have access to the capital—including via debt—needed. Starting a business creates the very real risk of failing and losing everything, which is why the vast majority of us are willing to instead take the relative security of a paycheck and implicitly giving up the control that a capitalist enjoys.
But bear this in mind: most of you readers work in the tech industry. The barriers to creating a new business are lower in our world than in almost any other. You don’t need formal education to start a business. You don’t need expensive tooling or real estate. You need a cheap laptop, an Internet connection, and some free software—along with the will, drive, and patience to do it. You do have options.
And working for a business is hardly all a bad thing. I love my job. I’m reasonably happy about the outcomes my company creates, and I enjoy the people I work with. And I know a lot of you are in exactly the same mindset: you’re fine being paid a fee to perform a service. In exchange, you probably also get a lot more free time than a big-shot capitalist or business owner, who often spend every waking moment worried about profit and growth. So I’m not painting “employment” in a bad light, I’m simply trying to highlight the reality of the game we’re all playing.