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An employer-employee relationship should be fair, equitable, and consensual for both parties.

Jobs give us a source of income, a sense of security, a structure to our day, a means of networking and social connections, and an identity. But since all things come with a price, it is important to sometimes reflect on what we are exchanging for these career benefits. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves if the exchange is (or continues to be) fair, meaningful, and consensual. Often a relationship, particularly an employer-employee relationship, starts out as fair, meaningful, and consensual for both parties, but over time, can morph into a lopsided or even exploitative relationship. In fact, this happens very naturally and very commonly in a capitalistic society, though it does not need to be this way as there are many businesses that practice “conscious capitalism”.

James Altucher, an entrepreneur and hedge fund manager, said that as an employer, it was his job “to convince them [his employees] to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for pay that would allow me to make a maximum amount of money from their hourly efforts. Every single employer-employee situation on the planet works this way. You need people to work for less than what youโ€™re making. Not only that, you need them to expend maximum effort and if along the way, they burn out, then you need to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of them before they finally collapse and must be replaced.”

Whenever friends complain to me about their long working hours and continuous stress, and then invite me to celebrate their job promotion with them, I feel I should say, “I’m sorry for your loss” instead of “congratulations”. Job promotions are great, if that’s what they really wanted, but after listening to months of complaints, I wonder if my friends consider that a job promotion not only comes with extra income, but also extra responsibilities (and these may not be proportional). Getting a job promotion doesn’t mean the employer is paying you extra and in advance for work you have done thus far; it is usually extra pay for work you will be doing once you’ve assumed your new role. So if you already feel like you’re stretched beyond capacity, a job promotion may just be the thing that breaks you and burns you out.

Since virtually all employers by nature can have a tendency to exploit (though not all of them will do so), you’ll need to assess for yourself whether you run the risk of being exploited. Here are a few things to do:

1. Remind yourself that your employers wants you (all of you – from your time to your skills, attention, and focus) to be working for them and thus making them more profitable. Simply put, employers pay you because you make them even more money in return. Make sure that what you are getting out of this relationship is fair to both parties. Make sure you are fulfilling your job description and responsibilities and that your employer is also doing his/her part.

2. Ask yourself what specifically your careers is for. Many people say “I work to support my family.” If your career is a “labor of love” in order for your family to thrive, grow, and be healthy, and at some point, your work jeopardizes the very goal that you are trying to achieve, then it may be time to reexamine your choices. For example, one of my good friends wanted to have enough saved before having children, so she ditched her teaching job and climbed the corporate ladder with a big multi-national corporation. However, as her career advanced, there were more and more incentives to not have children. She was even told by people in the organization that “it would not look good if you went on maternity leave when you’re so close to getting promoted”. One promotion after another, she is now 35 and childless. Throughout her 20s, she had always wanted children. Only time will tell whether she feels she made the right choice.

3. Don’t confuse money with success. It’s enticing to make a lot of money and have a huge paycheck. It’s a status symbol, a societal measure of success, and bragging right. It’s the adult equivalent to achieving a high grade. And so many Singaporeans, through their schooling, have this mentality engrained in their psyche. But you don’t want to one day realize that you have loads of money but not much of anything else. There are so many people I see daily who are very wealthy, but their health and family life is in shambles. They have so much money, they can buy anything they want, except those things that are really important in life.

4. Truly know your worth. Unfortunately, employers can have the natural tendency to downplay an employee’s worth. The more unworthy an employee feels, the more he/she will likely work harder despite not being compensated more. Also, if there’s a good chance that the employee is just as skilled, experienced, and talented as the employer, the employer may see this as a threat. As they say, know your worth and don’t sell yourself short.

5. Give yourself a performance review, or better yet, have your family give you one. It’s fulfilling to have a good performance review, and to know that you matter and that your talents and efforts are appreciated and rewarded. But what if your family were to give you a performance review? How would they measure your dedication, your time utilization, your mood, and your focus? How about your punctuality, and your efficiency and thoroughness at completing certain tasks? What would you do differently if your domestic job description and responsibilities were to be evaluated?

6. Be frugal. How does being frugal help a person to avoid exploitation? Being frugal helps you build a safety net, and having a safety net gives you security and options. You can decide to leave your job and seek employment elsewhere, if you so desire. Being frugal also makes it so that you don’t have to depend on promotions to continuously sustain a unnecessarily high standard of living. If you don’t want to take on extra work responsibilities, you can choose to remain at your current job level and not seek a promotion. Not being on the “earn and consume” treadmill means that you’ll have more saved so that ultimately, you can choose to retire early, or choose a career that you’ll be so passionate about, you won’t mind a little exploitation…

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