I once heard an annectdote about a clever lawyer who gave prospective hires a psychological assesment, and only hired those with father issues. He’d then act paternal enough to manipulate them into competing with each other for scraps, noting “If they knew how much they were worth they’d leave for another firm”.
I don’t know how much truth one can find behind that anectdote, but there is a very clear lesson: It’s easy to be manipulated, and difficult to tell its happening when its happening to you.
My friend Brad left his job with a marked lack of negative emotion. Why? In his own words (emphasis mine):
I should have this sadness about me because this was three years of my life. This was three years that I poured myself into my work. Three years that I gave everything I had and then even more to do my part to make this company kick butt in the IT space. Three years that I sacrificed sleep, vacation, health, friends, family, and everything else imaginable to do a job. But aside from missing a handful of people there, I don’t have any sadness at all. You know why? Because after these three years, this company refused to even acknowledge my 2 week notice, refused to pay me out upon leaving, and refused to even acknowledge that me not being there might have a slight impact on them.
There’s two points that stand out here. One is the above average effort (at one point Brad worked over a 100 hours in a week, and the encompassing weeks were not 40-hour “vacations”). Two is the lack of recognition from above.
This fits a pattern. If one talks to a few other folks who leave similar places, one finds in each case that prior to leaving they:
- Are incredibly insecure about finding a new job.
- Have a low opinion of their technical ability.
- Believe they are being properly compensated.
- Think the hours they work (45-60+) are industry standard.
After leaving, universally, they:
- Are confident they could find another job if they needed to.
- Have a solid opinion of their technical and interpersonal abilities.
- Know they are being properly compensated by looking at rates in the area and cost of living.
- Work a standard 40 hour work week, sometimes a bit less.
This is interesting to me because my friend Nick wrote a blog post about his worth to the company he works for, and he couldn’t be more wrong:
Why do I bring this up? I’m trying say that I had an incredibly inflated vision of my worth to a company. This isn’t to say that it was necessarily innaccurate, although it was it’s irrelevant. All that I am saying is that my personal valuation of what I could provide to a company was fairly high. But, what I didn’t realize how little I was actually bringing.
Catch that? Now I’ve worked with Nick in the past. I do hear he’s a bit of a hardass on the people under him. But as a co-worker he is tireless, skilled, and passionate. There’s no question he’s a better developer than I am. Where my heart is in other pursuits, Nick loves software development. He constantly strives to make himself better, already has a solid knowledge base, and has strong analytical skills that have been proven in very stressful situations.
So his assessment of himself strikes me, immediately, as a load of crap he’s been fed. The rest of his blog post confirms this:
Think about it this way. A company spends a great deal of time, effort, and resources in both people and materials to hire you, bring you up to speed, and then keep you happy over your time with that company. This isn’t a simple equation, but keeping it basic it looks like this:
recruiting + resources + salary = x
‘x’ is the monetary value that you are supposed to be worth to the company. That’s right, asset value. As with most things in accounting that hold a value, they depreciate unless more money is put into them each year. This is not giving you a raise or doing a review. Instead, this appreciation only comes from you, as an employee, getting better. This could be conferences, books, feeds, or even sitting in on a code review. Otherwise, your value to the company goes down each year.
Its so very wrong I saw it and just had to write about it. When a company hires someone (even when they specifically target recent college grads who are easier to underpay and manipulate), they have to spend money to recruit you and resources to train you. Over time, those expenses dissipate (recruiting) or change. Money spent on training lessens, and becomes more about building individuals or bringing new skills back to share with the rest of the company. Companies invest in employees, so x isn’t the monetary value of an employee, its the expense of an employee. The value of the employee goes up with increased experience, skill, and familiarity with the company’s software and process. That is where raises come from: when expenses go down and value goes up.
A raise is basic market economics at work. Since the employee has a higher worth, raises are coupled with implied job security to keep the worker from moving to a new job.
I say all of this because it has helped me over the years to realize my actual worth to a company rather than my inflated view. If I never evolved or got any better, then I would still be where I started, which is casting lines into the stream. In fact, I’d be worse than that, because I’d have depreciated.
Nick is right about the importance of personal evolution and self improvement. That has a tangible impact on one’s worth as an employee, in any field. But he’s quite wrong about both his own worth, and the idea that one’s worth to a company naturally deprecates over time. Presuming the employee is competent, the natural progression is more akin to a high yield savings account or a mutual fund: Value goes up. Because over time a good worker becomes more experienced, and the initial costs of training and recruitment go down. The company is paying less and getting more.
Paying less for more is precisely what to watch out for when companies play the psychology game. There isn’t necessarily anything sinister behind it either. Even good bosses will try to use some manipulative tactics to convince you to act in a way that benefits the company’s goals, rather than your own. What is slimy is working on a person’s self confidence and self worth.
A company that pays good employees well and asks reasonable amounts of effort and output in return doesn’t have to worry about playing psychology with its workers. A company that underpays or overworks its employees uses mind games to compensate.
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