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Sunday, January 17, 2016

How to Employ Without Enslaving (Updated 2/17)

What does a healthy relationship between employer and employee look like?

It seems to me that if one man is trading with another man, it is not all that complicated. Both are men, responsible for their lives, responsible for agreeing to a trade that provides them with value and declining a trade that does not.

So why is the workplace trade such a mess? 

Paid vacation: because you are not capable of saving for a vacation yourself?

Paid sick days: because otherwise you are so irresponsible with your money, you can't afford to get sick?

Retirement plans: because we both know you won’t plan for it?

Health plans: because your health is my responsibility?

The tradition of a holiday bonus – it’s for slaves. It's the myth of the benevolent rich guy and his grateful dependents. (See my Christmas post about that.

Why would I hire that person? Why am I taking responsibility for your life? I want to hire you, not be your mother!

All these “gifts” that employers are expected to give – they establish a relationship between employer and employee that does not look healthy to me. Is this kind of employment the gateway drug to big daddy government since no one is expected to take responsibility for his life?

I don't do my employees any favors when I turn them into my dependents.

Also, I don't think these "benefits" are for the employee at all. They are sold that way, but in reality, they are for me, the boss.

I talked to my farm manager and my cook about this, and both insist that, given the choice, they want to exchange money for labor. End of story. They don't want any of the gifts which they actually see as attempts to control. It's the flip side of the gift coin. The employer thinks he is "taking care of" his employee with that health plan, but employees would actually prefer the control over their lives.

Here, it's about food. Right now I provide very high quality food to my employees. This costs me only an extra $150 a month per employee, and I value having healthy employees, so I pay for it. I used to see myself as a benevolent boss giving them a gift that they appreciated. As it turns out, they don't appreciate it!

They don't see it as a gift. They would prefer that $150 in their pocket. They don't value healthy food or even the good health they enjoy from eating it. They would rather have more money and live on beans, rice, sugar, and beer. With the extra $150 they would buy even more sugar and even more beer. As the employer, I am controlling them by not giving them that option. They did freely agree to the arrangement, but it doesn't change the controlling nature of it.

My employees are irresponsible. And they would prefer to be allowed to be so.

But I don't feel safe having irresponsible employees. The "benefits" I give to my employees are actually there to protect me. Irresponsible people end up on the streets, if not now, then when they are older. They are a drain on society. They turn to crime and  begging.

The moral dilemma here is: You, my irresponsible employee, can't have it both ways. You say you want the freedom to make irresponsible choices. I want to give you that freedom. But not if it means you will expect me to take care of you when those bad choices catch up with you.

The ultimate consequence of irresponsible choices is, of course, death. If there is an expectation or requirement that me – or someone else – will save you from the consequences of your having freedom to make bad choices – then you can't have it.

The Freedom to be irresponsible, to truly own our lives, necessitates a greater comfort with suffering and death than we as a society currently have. Are humans capable of letting the two irresponsible little pigs get eaten by the wolf? Can we let Darwin take over?

Here are some thoughts I have on death:


  1. There are a few issues at play here:

    1.) Retirement plans and health plans are a historical accident due to high tax rates during war time. The company could pay for your medical or retirement contributions with pre-tax dollars and get you more bang for the buck than if they distributed after tax dollars to you and asked you to go shopping yourself.

    2.) PTO I think was motivated (legislators) less by the idea that people can't plan and care for themselves (although this is implicit!) but by the idea that workers AREN'T slaves, and so they shouldn't be punished if they decide to tend to other affairs one day such as their health or occasional amusement. I don't agree with that, of course, but I think that is the logic... if the employee gets paid even when they're not on the job, then they will feel less reluctant to do something for themselves.

    3.) The idea that an employee is not a "dependent" in any sense of the word is ignoring the fact of employment itself. Someone who is TRULY independent has no need of anyone's employment and works for themselves. People who are less capable (physically, mentally, emotionally, whatever) become employed in the works of others and thereby become "dependent" on them for this work.

    Looking at #3 more closely, it is the ideal but absurd to be actually realized, to have people who work for you who: care as much about the work as you do, are as smart/talented/effective/tenacious as you are, who are as ethical in their behavior as you would be, who are as in touch with the values of the work and the organization as you are, etc. They will always be less than you in these regards and meaningfully so and that is something you have to come to terms with if you want to hire the labor of others. The way you manage it is to set minimum standards for all of these things and hire/train/fire based on these minimums.

    But there is no getting around this "dependence" and you may benefit both yourself and your employees by embracing it in various ways. Their relative impoverishment in capability is often made more tolerable in exchange for tokens of appreciation and kindness which suggest "I care for you".

    If you need an analogy, consider your own emotional dependence on your husband (not necessarily YOU, but a person/spouse). You're perfectly capable of caring for your own emotional state yet the nature of the spousal relationship leads you to lean on your partner a bit more than you would a stranger. Should he chastise you with, "I'm not your father, stop expecting me to take responsibility for your emotional state" any time you're feeling a little out of step?

    To reject the "myth of the benevolent rich guy" is to reject the existence of a natural aristocracy amongst men -- ie, an uneven distribution of talent and merit in various enterprises amongst people -- and to reject further the average person's ability to perceive it. I doubt you actually believe in either of these denials. And neither do those who might be employed. Everyone who would be employed would like to be employed by a benevolent rich guy, in truth or in effect as the opposite, working for a tyrannical thief, is not becoming for either party.

    1. Thank you for this Taylor, really great food for thought. Questions:

      1. Are you sure that the reasons you listed above are really for the benefit of the employee and weren't just sold that way?
      2. If there really are two breeds of men, real men and dependent children who look like men, how does anarchy work? Doesn't anarchy require that each person belong to himself and take responsibility for himself? Above, it seems like you are arguing for Plato's society with a ruling class of benevolent employers.
      3. Employers are not magicians who make money out of thin air. They are people running companies that may or may not succeed. I cannot imagine it benefits an employee to think that he is no longer in charge of his own survival, that his employer is just going to take care of him to the end of his days. Assuming it is my job to help these sheeple, are they really better off being given the false impression that "I care for them" rather than being told to stand on their own two feet or perish?

  2. Case in point: I just went around shaking people's hands congratulating them on their various #1 performances from last month and a guy who wasn't number one in anything asked "jokingly" where was his congratulations? Now, I am not his father but clearly he made this joke because he feels insecure and requires external validation to function.

    I can facilitate his insecurity and try to become his therapist, or I can become complicit in his insecurity by feeding his need for validation with a "You're always #1 in my mind!", etc. Which of these is a better tactic?

    Or do I just fire an otherwise functional, capable employee who my customers enjoy interacting with and who makes himself and us money?

    How obsessed with his dependence need I be?

    1. Kudos to you that you make that kind of questions as an employer to yourself. It's pretty common for employees see their boss as a leader and sort of authority, that can give guidance etc.

      Even thought I'm not a "official" boss in a normal sense, in our company I was the one of the first that started out and once it grew new people are came in which I'm indirectly responsible for giving some guidance from time to time. So not long ago we had one guy, who wasn't creating proper results and more wasting time in a sense. He also couldn't take critic of his work and to my surprise the responsible manager was still willing to give him a chance one after another, probably dragged around 6 months instead of 2 where I did warned him about it. Even thought it was clear that he wasn't good fit it is still difficult to get rid of that kind of person, as in the end employees are also people we build relationships with and those relationships can go over the border of just business.

      So to answer the question should you give him validation or just get rid of him. Depends if you want to build a culture in the company and only have people that can drive other forward or just have employee's who get the job done at the end of the day and that's enough.

    2. I sat next to an older successful business owner on a plane during my last trip out here and asked her what advice she would give to her younger self or me. She said, "If they haven't worked out by month three, fire them and don't look back." We went on to talk about how difficult firing people is, and how when she started her company it would take her two years to fire someone, as in, she would know that they weren't working out but make excuses for them for two years before finally firing them. Today she knows that if they are't impressing her at three months, they never will, and she lets them go.

      I think there is probably no One Rule to this. Every relationship is different, and every firing/not firing decision will be different.

  3. An employer-employee relationship is a personal relationship. And a value for value trade. The value going each way is more than just the money compensation, even without the "benefit" package assumed if you are an American. I wonder if insight can be gotten from Paul Jaminet's ideas here:
    I don't think it's useful or productive to denigrate the motives or abilities or ambition or independence of a person looking for paid work from someone else. But you do have to carefully assess their character if you are going to enter into a relationship with them. My perspective is as an employee, I've worked independently as a consultant and contractor but most of my working life has been employee. I have experience conducting job interviews at some of my workplaces.

    1. This is an important point: The value going each way is more than just the trade of time and money. The relationship is a value in and of itself. Or it can be. I enjoyed my relationships with my bosses. I always felt like I had something to learn from them. But I also had work to do and tried not to bother them very much. As an employee I always did very good work. I always had coworkers who did not do good work and seemed to spend all their time focused on becoming bff's with the bosses. There were bosses who enjoyed that approach and bosses who did not. I never liked that approach in my coworkers and can't stand it in my employees. I hire people to save me time, not take up my time!

      So is what you are saying that I just need to be clear about that going in? And look for employees that want to trade time and money and aren't looking for a bff or a mom? It is valid for them to want that kind of relationship and fine for some bosses to provide it, we should all just be clear about the kind of relationship we are looking to establish?

  4. Great points. The employer/employee relationship always was an interesting topic to me, as it just touches so many people these days. Being myself as an employee for over a 10 years, I have seen all kind of stuff, but as you pointed out already most common attitude is what I will get from him, instead of what can I do to create value for my employer. At the end of the day that is the main reason why he hires you, to bring benefits to the business.
    Even thought I knew this concept for a long time I haven't took it seriously enough to actually utilize it. Only just couple of months I started to be more conscious about it and start seeing day-to-day things from different angle. For example, if I come to the employer and I say I want to create more value to you, instead of just asking for a raise, I get such conversations and their max attention, that I wouldn't get in any other way.