Your Job and Your Mind

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:

  1. Are incredibly insecure about finding a new job.
  2. Have a low opinion of their technical ability.
  3. Believe they are being properly compensated.
  4. Think the hours they work (45-60+) are industry standard.

After leaving, universally, they:

  1. Are confident they could find another job if they needed to.
  2. Have a solid opinion of their technical and interpersonal abilities.
  3. Know they are being properly compensated by looking at rates in the area and cost of living.
  4. 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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6 Responses

  1. I definitely had this same issue with an underestimation of my skills. It’s difficult to find perspective on where you sit on the bell curve of people in your profession.

    I agree that the value of an employee increases in value over time. If the company doesn’t see it that way, it means they are using the cheap replaceable labor model. If you find yourself in this position it doesn’t mean you should leave (although you should keep your options open). It does mean that you should make sure you’re cultivating your own career and not counting on our company to look out for your best interests.

  2. It isn’t a question of where you sit in relation to other employees. More where your own abilities are on their own.

    I don’t know that companies who ignore employee value going up over time always use the cheap replaceable labor model, but it is the kind of belief that surely supports such a model.

    If you find yourself working for a company that hires and fires, I’d think that’s a pretty good reason to leave. If you can handle instability like that in your job, why not contract and be compensated for the increased risk to your job security? Or work for a healthy company. With a company like that, its a matter of time until you get dumped, no matter how integral you’ve become. I know I can recall some striking examples of that.

  3. Great read.

    My point in my post was to say that people need to take more responsibility for how their career progresses. You don’t get any better by doing the minimum or by being mediocre. Instead, you get better by learning more things, this includes experience with the companies software but is certainly not limited to it.

    Houses don’t appreciate without work or money invested in them, how can we? How can our careers or education progress without investment?

    I think that we agree on a couple things, but we are placing the responsibility in different places. I’m placing it on individuals and you are placing it on the company.

    What do you think?

  4. Thanks Nick.

    People do need to take responsibility for their careers by improving their skill, getting the job done, etc. I don’t know many people who don’t (some hilarious exceptions exist of course, I’m thinking of your favorite disciple).

    Employees aren’t houses. (And the value of the land houses are built on do tend to rise and fall due to a variety of factors, work and investment being only a part of the full equation. For instance, the value of surrounding properties has an impact).

    I think it isn’t a question of where responsibility lies. I’m not saying the company is responsible for how valuable its employees are. I’m saying employee value is naturally increases as a result of increased experience, familiarity, and skill. Measured against the decreased spending on the employee (recruitment and training), this represents an increase in value a company can choose to recognize or not (sometimes at the cost of retaining employees).

    A wise employee acts on their own to increase their value beyond the natural curve of experience alone.
    A wise company keeps pace with the market for all employees, rewards exceptional employees and guards against burnout by keeping regular work hours. It doesn’t need to resort to psychological bullying to keep good people.

  5. @Dan
    Agreed. But I said nothing of psychological bullying or anything like that. While a company should do something to promote the enhancement of it’s employees, how far does that go. It needs to be cost-effective, no?

    So, the employee should do more to increase their value. Also, like you said, there are external factors to appreciation. I consider the experience you gain while on the job to be such an external factor. The point is, you need to do more to better yourself…not stay the course and things will get better. Don’t blame a company because you think you are awesome and only don’t what is necessary. Sure, you’ll likely get a raise. But, will you get that promotion you “think” you deserve? By don’t only what is necessary, should you? Just because you do your job every day does not mean you will be perceived fit for the next job.

    Also, one of the quotes in your post was about me coming out of school. I had no experience. Thus I was bottom rung, but felt I was worth a whole lot more. That was certainly not the case. 🙂

    Regardless, these are just my thoughts and can certainly be disagreed with. 🙂

  6. @Nick,
    I like your shorthand for comments-respondin.

    I know you didn’t mention psychological bullying. Its the main point of my post, and I wanted to bring the discussion back to it. Asking “how far does that go” makes it appear as if my suggestion that psychological bullying isn’t needed is an appeal to workers-rights so radical it would reduce companies to dust. My point is simply that a company that adheres to a standard work week and pays market for its employees doesn’t need to manipulate to compensate.

    I also firmly believe that such an environment has a deep impact on the quality of work produced.

    I consider the experience you gain while on the job to be such an external factor. The point is, you need to do more to better yourself…not stay the course and things will get better.

    You’ve contradicted yourself there. First, experience on the job isn’t external. Its intrinsic. Second, if one works and learns from one’s job, one will naturally improve, even if time outside of work isn’t spent explicitly on skill-related activities. Certainly one improves at a faster rate the more consciously one works and comes to understand both failures and successes. But that is part of being a good worker.

    Don’t blame a company because you think you are awesome and only don’t what is necessary.

    My concern is companies that knowingly pay people between 50-80% of what they could make elsewhere, work them longer hours (further degrading their effective pay), and resort to a variety of mind tricks to keep people toiling away. I think its a shoddy way to do business. I’m presuming you meant “only do what is necessary”. I don’t disagree that there is a difference between people who do their job competently, and those who go above and beyond. But that’s not where I’m going at all with my argument.

    Just because you do your job every day does not mean you will be perceived fit for the next job.

    Absolutely not. As I found out, that comes from a mix of confidence and knowledge during the interview process, the familiarity and reputation of the company you worked for last, and supposing you get in how effective you are in meeting your responsibilities. (It also doesn’t hurt to have a professional-content oriented blog, as you do, a very wise move).
    The thing is, I am not suggesting that, and I’m not sure where you get that I am.

    Regardless, these are just my thoughts and can certainly be disagreed with.

    Hogwash! They are arguments, and are rather fun to engage in.

    Thanks for the discussion!

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