Plowing through a furlough: Reducing dependence on one employer

No sooner than the furloughs from sequestration were over, many government employees were facing another one — this time due to a government shutdown.

That part looks to be over for the time being, but could reappear at the beginning of calendar year 2014 as the stopgap funding bill expires.  For government employees, what was smooth sailing now has a persistent choppiness.

It’s just business

Jump back to the turn of the century for a minute, and picture Alice, who has a small but growing widget company.

Bob, a guy with an associate’s degree and certificates in various forms of shop work, approaches Alice about a job offer he found as he was searching  After a brief interview, each realized that this has the potential of being a good arrangement.

Alice says: “I’ll pay you $18/hour for making widgets until one of us stops the arrangement by giving two weeks’ notice.”  Bob confirmed his understanding:  “I’ll make widgets for you for $18/hour until one of us stops the arrangement by giving the other two weeks’ notice.”

(“We’ll exchange your time for my money until we stop.”  It’s usually more complicated than this, of course, but it doesn’t really have to be.)

Bob faithfully makes widgets for Alice for 14 years. Bob is now pulling in $26/hour. Alice has been happy to pay this, because Bob’s labor translates to $80 in profit per hour. The arrangement has been modified several times along the way, but it’s going well.

Alice finally has the capital to hire Charity, a mechanical engineer, to design a machine that will make the widgets faster and better. Bob continues to make widgets as he has been. It’s a good arrangement for him.

A year later, Charity get the machine done! The machine now makes 12 widgets an hour — twice what Bob can make in an hour, even now — and the operation is so easy that Alice can hire Daryl, a high school graduate, at $12/hour to run the machine.

Alice then calls Bob into her office.

Alice: “Bob, please know that this is not an easy decision, but I need to let you go. Our arrangement is terminated two weeks from today.”
Bob: “What?! I don’t understand.”
Alice: “The machine that Charity designed makes the widgets twice as fast as you can, and the tolerances are higher. That, and I can hire someone at less than half your hourly rate to run it.  It just doesn’t make good business sense to keep you here, if all you’re doing is making widgets for me.”
Bob: “But … but … I’ve worked for you for fifteen years! I’ve been a loyal employee all that time.”
Alice: “I know you have. Like I said, this isn’t an easy decision. Though our agreement only calls for three weeks’ severance pay, I’m going to give you six.”
Bob: “The job market is awful now. Things were going fine here; I didn’t expect them to end so abruptly.”
Alice: “Two weeks’ notice was our agreement, right? I planned for the possibility that I’d need to train someone to do what you do, and deal with the fact that they’re not as good at what you do as you are — on two weeks’ notice from you.”
Bob: “But … no! Why would I do that to you?”
Alice: “Any number of reasons. Maybe you would find a better job. Maybe you would start your own business, now that you’ve had the opportunity to see how one works yourself. You had that option the whole time, too.”

One statement that’s often made about my generation (I was born in the early 1970s) and those that followed is that we don’t expect to have a single career for our entire working life.  Whatever expectation of employer-employee loyalty that might have been there was no longer there.

Whether this is a true statement or not — whether employers and employees are more or less loyal to each other now than they were fifty years ago — isn’t the point.  More to the point is that any perception of loyalty is trumped by the details of the employment contract.  This was true in the 1960s, and it’s true now.

Do you have a tacit expectation of loyalty from your employer that drives your loyalty to them?  Do you think — just like Bob did — that your boss wouldn’t let you go, and therefore you don’t think of leaving yourself?

If you do, check your employment contract for a “job for life” clause.

Oh?  You can’t find one?  There’s something similar to a bidirectional two weeks’ notice clause in there?

Any perceived loyalty is just that:  a perception.  Which can easily be mistaken for a delusion.

The fix for this is to get options open before you need to have them.  Invest in yourself.  Start a blog. Anything that will either (a) increase your chances of finding another job should your current one dry up, or (b) give you more time to find another job because you have extra money coming in the door.

Reduce your dependence on your employer before they forcibly make you independent of them.

John Wedding

Husband. Father. Web publisher. Musician. John has blogged at Mighty Bargain Hunter since 2005, helping people to recognize life's good deals.

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  1. says

    I agree! As a teacher, I can hardly freelance or do other things. Why should I have to? The career is usually fairly safe until about 4 years ago. The state budget was cut and so was the school budget. It is good I already have a nice retirement nest egg and the furlough days did not materially affect me.

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