your relationship with workmonthly article

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Have a look at this diagram:

It represents the 3 sets of relationships we all have with work:

Contracted

This is the employment contract – the one we sign up to when we join. We acquire a set of duties and responsibilities in return for a set pay – and a contracted number of hours. So far, so clear. But it rarely works out like that.

Goodwill

Most employees do more than their contracted hours – and do so positively and with good grace. I call this the goodwill relationship. Both the employee and the employer come to expect and accept these additional hours, and do so in a positive frame of mind.

It’s easy to see what the benefit is for the employer: in effect they get more hours from the employee and thus greater capacity to function and perform. But what’s in it for the employee – why do they work extra hours willingly for no extra pay?

There are a number of reasons. The main one of course, is the employee’s commitment to the role. The more they enjoy it, the less it seems like work. It truly becomes a labour of love. And money isn’t everything. There are other rewards, other paybacks, that compensate what seems on face value like an unfair trade. These can include certain ‘perks’ that others would have to pay to do – such as attending conferences or carrying out research; or the high quality of the working relationships with colleagues and managers. Some may have a different relationship to or with pay – what one person may see as meagre, another may consider abundant. And, most compellingly, is the nature of the work itself – a calling or vocation which is so motivational as to be beyond pay (the kind of work some will say they would do for free). All may produce a natural, freely given commitment to work beyond the contracted hours.

One thing needs to be made clear: in all the above the employee does not resent the work: they resent those who they hold responsible for placing them in this invidious position.

Exploited

This exists when the employee, for a number of reasons, works beyond the contracted hours – but does so resentfully. The employee feels exploited – almost compelled to work longer hours for none of the additional benefits described above. On the face of it, the employee must be working beyond their contracted hours voluntarily – otherwise, why do it? Of course there are a number of reasons: foremost is fear. Many fear that if they don’t meet increasing demands, they will put themselves at risk – being judged as lacking the necessary motivation or skill. Some resent the impact the additional hours have on the rest of their life – there are only so many hours in the day, so something has to give. A third factor may be lack of assertiveness: individuals do not have the skills or confidence to speak up. And there is also the view that “someone’s got to do it” – a particular problem for teams with low numbers or scarce specialist expertise.

Working in this way may have three unintended consequences. The first is that the employer can say it’s down to the employee: whether they work beyond their contracted hours is their call. Secondly, it sets a performance level which others may then feel compelled to match – or suffer the consequences (as in ‘she’s doing it, so I’d better do it too’). And thirdly – because exploited people are still committed to the work – performance doesn’t suffer. This is the irony of exploitation: the relationship is degraded, not the work.

So what can be done to prevent this happening? Some of the solutions lie with management, and some with the employee…

To be clear, no one resents the occasional one-off call to work extra hours...it’s doing so persistently, as the norm, that degrades. And if the relationship stays degraded, then people are likely to be unhappy at work, and seek pastures new.

Management solutions might include:

  • being alert to and recognising the cross over from goodwill to exploitation – and preventing it
  • encouraging staff to speak to them if they feel exploited
  • as part of any Appraisal or PRD process, agreeing the boundary between goodwill and exploitation (either at a team or individual level)
  • finding suitable compensations, acceptable to the employee, to prevent the feeling of exploitation occurring
  • providing development support, either through coaching or training, to give staff the confidence and competence to speak out
  • examining at the most senior level, whether there is a culture of exploitation, and one therefore that needs addressing as a leadership issue

Employee solutions might include:

  • taking personal ownership of accepting a level of work which they then resent. Eleanor Roosevelt said: “no one can make me feel bad without my consent”. Ultimately, we are complicit in our own exploitation; if in essence we choose to accept being exploited, we should at least stop feeling bad about it – or choose not to accept the additional work. Accepting it may be bad enough; feeling resentful just makes it worse. I know this is tough, and easier to say than do – but it is true, nonetheless
  • raising the issue, and how they feel about it, with their manager
  • being more prepared to make a stand and say no (knowing that if there are unwanted consequences, then the issue has moved from exploitation to bullying)
  • seeking personal support and development if the issue is a lack of skill or confidence

As a final thought, consider this formula:

C1 + C2 + C3 + NA = EE

where…

  • C1 is Capable
  • C2 is Conscientious
  • C3 is Committed
  • NA is Non-assertive
  • EE is Exposed to Exploitation.

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We know it’s a faff
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We know it’s a faff
And a bit of a pain;
But it really helps us
Stay on top of our game…