As noted by celebrated public intellectual Noam Chomsky, “As human beings, we are born with the desire to inquire and create.” However, often it seems as though the companies many of us work at are less than interested in creating an environment that nurtures our potential and allows us to thrive. Chomksy went as far as to compare working for a company to “selling yourself to a tyranny.”
Many would argue that we choose to work for these companies and that, really, we are responsible for our own situation. While that might be true to some extent, many workers are unaware of some tactics that companies use to instill fear and control.
So many companies do this that published author and Ideapod founder Justin Brown noted in a recent video that making such a choice is often like “doing a deal with a devil” and one that makes us “feeling empty inside.”
Of course, not all companies employ such tactics, and you can, of course, find companies that are great to work with. I would know. For better or worse, I have worked for countless companies in several industries and can tell you that there were vast differences in how each treated their employees.
Today, we uncover three tactics to watch out for. Most often, these tactics are hiding in plain sight.
If you are in the market for a new job, these are certainly things you should keep in mind. If you feel like a slave in your current position, these might explain why.
1) Non-compete clauses
I was once asked to sign a non-compete contract on starting a job. I won’t say what the job was, but I can tell you that I was by no means in a powerful position. The non-compete stipulated that on leaving the company, I was not permitted to work for any competing companies for a year after leaving.
It seemed a bit harsh at the time, but I really wanted the job so, naively, I signed it. A little silly of me? Yes probably. At the time, however, it all seemed great. I would have a good job with a growing company in an industry that I was eager to progress in. I had met some of the management, and all in all, everything seemed great.
Except it wasn’t. I left a year later despite having very limited options due to that non-compete. I would have left earlier if I hadn’t signed it. I was controlled by it. I felt like I really had “done a deal with the devil.”
Despite being heavily criticized by organizations like the Federal Trade Commission, companies continue to request that new employees sign non-compete clauses. And when I say “request,” I mean you sign it, or you don’t get the job.
As well as holding employees as prisoners by putting an extreme limit on the opportunities they have if they leave the company, FTC research stated that these contracts reduce wages and increase racial and gender wage gaps.
If this is not the epitome of a tactic that instills fear and control over the less strong, I don’t know what is. If you have never had one, trust me; such a contract can make you feel like a slave.
The funny thing is that often these non-compete clauses are not enforceable, and that if employees went to court, they might actually win. But how many people are willing to take on the stress and cost of taking legal action? I certainly wasn’t.
2) Tying employees to a set location
The recent surge of return-to-work mandates exemplifies, like no other, how company heads often desire to control their employees, often without taking into account the desires of their employees or the research at hand.
Some jobs require employees to be on-site for their jobs. Think pilots, doctors, and nurses; no one is debating this. However, most knowledge jobs can be done remotely. The majority of these workers adjusted to working remotely during the pandemic, but countless company bosses are now calling employees back to the office.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is said to have emailed employees saying they have to be on-site for a minimum of 40 hours a week or they won’t have a job there. This is hardly a big surprise, given Musk has become known for quite authoritarian decisions.
However, even Zoom employees are now being asked to return to the office. Keep in mind this is a company that made a fortune due to the rise of remote work.
Well, there must be some evidence that working from a shared physical location is better then, right?
Well, sort of. Not really. Maybe.
Let’s first take a look at what employees want.
According to a recent Forbes article, 65% of employees desire to work remotely all the time, while 32% would prefer to work at home some of the time. Another study suggests that just 3% of knowledge workers would like to return to the office five days a week.
Okay, so a lot of workers want to continue working from home, but many companies still insist on bringing employees back to the office. Working at the office must be more productive, right?
This is where it gets a little more complicated.
One Stanford study suggests that working from home increases productivity by 13%, while another Stanford study provides evidence that fully remote work is associated with approximately 10% lower productivity.
Adding to this confusion is a divide in opinion. It was found that workers felt they were about 7% more productive at home, while managers believed productivity was around 3.5% lower.
See the problem?
The second Stanford study mentioned, however, acknowledges that “fully remote work can generate even larger cost reductions from space savings and global hiring”.
So, from a bottom-line perspective, companies probably still win when they allow employees to work remotely.
And even if a 10% productivity decrease is accurate, why wouldn’t companies offer a 10% lower wage and a fully remote option?
After all, US workers spend an average of 19 percent of their salary and 239 hours a year on commuting, and the research suggests they prefer to work from home. I’m not advocating paying workers less, but those being the only options, I know I’d take the remote one.
Why are so many people being forced to waste time commuting, live near their workplace in expensive cities, and sacrifice their work-life balance to satisfy the demands of their employers?
Interestingly, the second Stanford study also acknowledged that working from home also makes it easier to change jobs, which, naturally, is bad for companies but good for employees.
Are return-to-the-office mandates because of productivity gains, or are they a tactic to control us?
I’ll leave your answer up to you.
3) Paying just enough
I once had a colleague who I consider a great mentor. In his late 50s, he decided to start a business. He didn’t need the money; he had climbed the corporate ladder to the very top and been extremely successful.
So I asked him why. His answer stuck with me until today.
He told me that he was starting his business for his son to take over when he was old enough to do so. He explained to me that when he was younger, employees were paid a fair wage and expected to work a reasonable amount of hours for that wage, but the world is no longer like that. He wanted his son to have a better option than working 12-hour days, trying to get ahead, and being paid a barely livable wage.
Looking into the figures. It seems he couldn’t be more right. In fact, the figures are truly shocking.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, in the US “the top 1% wage grew 138% since 1979, while wages for the bottom 90% grew 15%”.
As detailed in a post by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the starting salary for those with a Bachelor’s degree grew just 5.9 percent (after adjusting for inflation) between 1960 and 2015.
As a consequence, the median net worth of 35-44-year-olds in the US was lower in 2019($91K) than it was in 1989($112k).
If those figures aren’t shocking enough, in 1970, US CEOs made an average of 20 times that of a typical worker. Do you want to guess what it was in 2010?
Let that sink in.
So why am I telling you this?
Most of us are middle-income workers, and companies have continued to pay us pretty much the same wage as decades ago while increasing CEO wages exponentially. And no…we can’t all become CEOs and make the big bucks. It’s just not possible. As of May 2022, there were a mere 200,000 CEOs in the US.
What about costs?
According to a CNBC article, adjusted for inflation, house prices in the US rose 114 percent between 1960 and 2018, and the cost of attending a public university rose by a whopping 212 percent between 1987 and 2018.
Put simply, housing and education costs have ballooned, but wages for most office workers have remained almost stagnant. This has left people in the US who are under 35 with median cash savings of just over 3,000 USD, with average monthly expenses for one person coming in at 3,405 USD.
It’s no wonder many employees are stuck on jobs they don’t like for fear of not being able to pay their bills. If they were to quit, they likely wouldn’t have liquid cash to cover even a month of living costs.
The bottom line
It could be argued that combining a wage that just about covers expenses, an office in an expensive city, and a non-compete clause makes many normal office workers as “free to starve” as they are free to choose.
I do apologize for all the doom and gloom in this post. If you have been struggling, I hope it makes you feel somewhat better; you are not alone. If you are looking for your first, second, or tenth job, these are things to keep in mind.
Also, be aware that the information provided in this post is general. The points do not apply to every company. I, for example, happily work remotely on a flexible schedule, and while I won’t be living in a mansion any time soon, I am able to pay my bills.
I don’t mean to sound boastful. It took me more than a decade in several industries and companies to find myself here. I simply want you to know that if I can do it, you can too.
As always, I hope you found this post enjoyable to read and that it has given you some food for thought.
Until next time.