We Don't Know What Employment Is

At the heart of a lot of workplace problems I encountered is a very fundamental and culturally specific issue: we don’t have a shared idea of what employment is.

Everyone vaguely agrees on basic differences between full and part-time workers, entrepreneurs, contractors and interns yet again, the devil is in the details.

If you are buying a service, you pick one:

  • Paying for delivery, be it a haircut or a cooked meal
  • Paying per hour with maybe a rough initial estimate, but only knowing a final price afterward. That’s the infamous car repair shop, consultants, architects and most of the craftsmen

This is, of course, a result of market balance: customer demands known price while suppliers would like guaranteed income. Where they meet depends on the certainty of the outcome (how certain is the supplier about material and time needs, which equates to their risk) and agreement on the deliverable (whether both sides agree on what is an acceptable outcome).

Employment makes one side fixed (since full-time employees have guaranteed monthly income) and leaves it to the company to handle the eventual service mismatch.

This creates room for misunderstandings.

What Are You Entitled To?

I am no expert on the history of labor law, but it seems obviously rooted in an exchange of, well, physical labor for money1. Physical labor has three critical properties:

  • The output is easily measurable
  • The variation between individuals is relatively low
  • All work is done at the workplace

None of this is true in the modern knowledge economy and this leads people to interpret their contract differently. The c ones I’ve met are below.

Exchange of Time for Money (AKA Body Rental)

The employer is entitled to a specified amount of time (usually 8 hours) of employees' presence at the workplace. The quality and effort required are largely undefined and it’s up to the employer to define and require them.

The rest of the time is the employee’s life and it’s up to them how they spend them.

Exchange of Effort for Money

The employer is entitled to a certain amount of effort that is defined by the salary. The higher the salary, the higher effort and output can be expected.

Once the outcome reaches the payment level, the employee can do whatever they want to, regardless of the amount of time spent on achieving it.

Exchange of Deliveries for Money

The employer is entitled to get a continuously defined set of deliveries from the employee. It provides tools to get them done, but it’s up to the employee to get them done.

The employee can do whatever they want to once done, but also, they are expected to work however long they need to deliver.

Mind Rental

The employee rents their brain to the employer for the duration of the contract. Whatever comes out of it is a property of the employer, regardless of when it happened.

There are rough guidelines on the number of hours where those ideas are forged into artifacts desired by the employer, but definitely not limited to.

The Tribe

Upon joining the company, the employee joins the employer’s tribe. The tribe defines lifestyle values and rituals all employees adhere to in both work and personal life.

The tribe company expects its members employees to do whatever is necessary for the tribe to prosper, regardless of the time constraints.

The company often asks employees to prioritize company matters over other areas of life or other tribes in their lives (like a family).

The Sect

Like The Tribe—except no other tribes (or people) are allowed in your life.

The company can ask you to regulate your body functions as needed, especially with regards to the sleep cycle.

The Problem

Although the above description may contain varying amounts of cynicism, I do believe all of them are valid contracts as long as both parties agree on them. While some of them may seem exploitative based on the description, they don’t need2 to as demands may be warranted by sufficient rewards.

The struggle is to have an agreement of which one of those are you in and by you I mean both you the employer and you the employee. And when I say the employee, I actually mean having this specified explicitly and have it consistent across all managers.

I believe the amount of resonance you get with those interpretations depends on your upbringing and school system, more specifically, whether you were rewarded for your results or your efforts3. I believe this significantly shapes how you tend to reward people afterward.

I am personally originally from the efforts camp and while some people think this is a good system for motivating the team, it has one significant limitation: your customers don’t care.


An employment contract is loaded with implicit expectations. It’s crucial for both your and employer’s happiness to clarify which one you enter. The “default expectations” also significantly vary across cultural boundaries, making it even more important if you are to join a multinational company or team.

I have no good advice on how to talk about this unless you have a sufficient position to impose company-wide change. If you are applying for a position, talking about this can easily leave the impression that you are looking for “minimum effort required”.

Probably the best you can do is to clarify with yourself what you are looking for and act accordingly.

Thanks to Vincenzo Chianese and Honza Javorek for feedback and corrections.

  1. Or more specifically, improving the conditions of people who power the economy by doing physical labor and lifting them from the slave or slave-like status. ↩︎

  2. This is highly dependent on the power balance between the employee and the employer and of course there is a lot of room for real exploitation. This is the original essence of labor law and totally out of the scope of this article to discuss, but it was viscerally present in feedback from my friends living in the country where the power disbalance is embedded in the whole employment system, like having health insurance tied to being employed.

    I also think it’s unrelated to this article as the early 21st century trend is to go around the labor law completely by declaring employees as contractors. ↩︎

  3. Which is better is subject to a lot of fine print and a lot of debate, most of the recent research favoring reward for efforts. That said, rewards are extrinsic and that in itself can screw your motivations entirely ↩︎

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