Whether you like it or not, you and your employer are natural adversaries. They want to get you to do as much as possible for as low a cost as possible. This adversarial relationship doesn’t end when you are hired. That is when it begins.
I am going to refer to movies to illustrate some points. If you haven’t seen the movies, don’t worry about it. The points should be pretty obvious.
When I was a kid I loved the film The Great Escape. In this movie about WWII POWs in a Nazi prison camp, Steve McQueen plays the archetypal free man and not coincidentally an American among the mainly British prison population. He is different from the others. He knows who he is. He is often in “the cooler,” or solitary confinement, because he views it as his duty and pleasure to try to escape. He infuriates but ultimately earns the respect of his captors by “enjoying” his time in the cooler, banging a baseball repeatedly against the concrete wall of his cell. Without giving too much away, his breakout is the most daring yet he is one of the few survivors.
Your duty as an employee is to similarly turn the tables. Get paid for more than you think the work is worth. In this way you will come out ahead of where you would have. Even if you wind up “in the cooler,” you will keep respect. More postings here will be about how you can cultivate and “eat” respect.
When a recruiter calls you about an opportunity you should always take the call. Make sure you treat these calls as you would a serious interview. Always be prepared for them. When you have the first contact, before you send a resume, you are totally in the driver’s seat. You can create any impression you want. So far, this is what any recruiter’s bible will tell you. Now for the Lucky Strike Extra. Use these calls to find out whether you are paid at, above or below the market for what you do. It’s OK if you are being paid at the market (or if you prefer, in the money). It’s best to be a little above but not too far out of the money. That way you look good but not out of reach. When asked how much you make, you may decide not to divulge at first or to offer a range or to be upfront with the number. Whatever you do, don’t lie, fudge or fumble the answer. Be confident and terse on this one. If it ends the call – that’s fine. Get contact information, pass along referrals if you want and stay in touch if you develop a rapport. You just got some important and nearly free information. If you get called for one interview or one hundred for a given job remember, you are in charge. Don’t be afraid to walk or stop the process at any point if you believe you are not being treated with respect. Never complain and never explain.
Always counter when you receive an offer. Figuring out how high is high enough but not too high is an art, not a science. I have gotten it wrong and gotten it right. Mistakes teach more than wins. Don’t worry if you get it wrong. You won’t be there forever. Ask for as much as you can up front in all forms of compensation
- Base pay (pure salary)
- Incentive/variable pay (performance based bonuses and commission rates)
- Profit sharing (based on how the company does, not just you)
- Benefits (healthcare, life insurance, retirement plan, etc.)
- Perks (health club memberships, subscriptions, training, parking, commutation)
Chances are you will not be getting a meaningful raise any time soon unless you cause world peace or blackmail somebody so get what you can upfront.
Here is a multiple-choice question to test your ability to deal with the outcome of your negotiation. If, after joining the payroll you find that things are not what you expected you should:
- Swallow it for now and hope it gets better.
- Call Human Resources to complain and threaten to sue.
- Reduce your work output to suit the reality of your position and immediately begin making exit plans.
- Realize that this is a test and work harder than ever.
My favorite answer is (3). This is because I refuse to train people to disrespect me (1,4) and am not stupid enough to think H.R. or the courts will help me. More importantly, as The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone said to Sonny before they massacred his heedless boy, never take sides against your family and never let your enemies know what you are thinking. The Don would advise you not to threaten to do anything. Just do what you must and be prepared for the consequences.
Never sue your employer for reinstatement or for personal gain. It destroys your credibility forever, almost certainly means you lose even if you win and is the ultimate admission that you need somebody else to help make your employer give you something you should have as your right. Besides, you might be wrong. Unless you are a top executive with a golden parachute, you most likely have being hired at will and subject to termination at will as a condition of employment. This means they can fire you at any time and without so much as giving you a reason or notice. This helps them stack the deck in their favor but is also one of your greatest advantages. You can fire your boss any time you want and s/he has no recourse.
In the great days of labor activism the strike was the tactical nuke. A lone salaried individual can’t strike, however you can use other weapons in labor’s arsenal. You can do a slow down. Don’t say no and don’t obviously shirk – just don’t do work the way you would if you actually cared or used gray matter.
One of your employer’s greatest weapons against you is to hold you hostage to your own sense of professional or ethical conduct. I don’t recommend compromising your ethics for any reason. Quit immediately if you think this is being required of you. If serious enough and you can produce evidence, consider asking for a prosecutor to investigate bringing a criminal (not civil) complaint against them after you leave. It is a crime to knowingly fail to report a crime. Most often though, you will not be in this position and you can dispense with professional scruple, keep your ethics intact and just kick it down a notch or two. This does not mean you will never get a raise or promotion. It is psychological warfare and you must play to win. As any boot camp Army recruit learns, any large organization has self-defeating procedures that require personal initiative to circumvent, “for the good of the company.” All top performing employees know this and break these rules to succeed. Don’t do this if your employer hasn’t earned it and won’t appreciate it.
Government employees excel at doing nothing without looking like they are doing nothing. If you are going to be treated like a slave you must master the skills of the slave and not return excellence for abuse. This is not unethical, illegal or even likely to hurt your earning potential if done correctly. It is important when doing this to always appear to be compliant, helpful and a “team player,” which is often code for a donkey. When going slow it is always better to be dumb and nice than smart and arrogant. Recalcitrant pack animals survive with lighter loads. Bucking broncos get broken or become glue. Martin Luther King gave good instructions for passive resistors. They must follow all the rules meticulously except for the one they are breaking. They must be well-mannered and good citizens who calmly refrain from sitting in the back of the bus. Go thou and do likewise.
Things don’t always go badly. You might start a new job and hit it off right away. You might really like the work and the people. Do your best but also start writing your review early. Get documentation supporting you. Don’t take anything for granted. Never give your employer for free what you can and should be paid for. Working extra hours to get something is different. Just remember, your time is your most precious commodity. Consider what you could be doing. Is it more important to take the red-eye to get the jump on the competition or to spend another hour at home reading to your kids?
Above all, whether you hate your job or love it, face each day as though you might have to hand in your resignation that very day. In most cases you will find work is much more interesting when you actually care about what you are doing. This helps you because it does in fact make you harder to get rid of and easier to rehire. Always consider your personal reputation before deciding to take a job, leave a job or become “retired in place.” But don’t dwell on it too much. This is still America, where convicted felons get jobs and can even hold high office.