How to go to war with your employer June 12, 2023 on Drew DeVault's blog

There is a power differential between you and your employer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your working conditions. Today I’d like to offer a little bit of advice on how to frame your relationship with your employer in terms which empower you and afford you more agency. I’m going to talk about the typical working conditions of the average white-collar job in a neo-liberal political environment where you are mostly happy to begin with and financially stable enough to take risks, and I’m specifically going to talk about individual action or the actions of small groups rather than large-scale collective action (e.g. unions).

I wish to subvert the expectation here that employees are subordinate to their employers. A healthy employment relationship between an employee and employer is that of two entities who agree to work together on equal terms to strive towards mutual goals, which in the simplest form is that you both make money and in the subtleties also suggests that you should be happy doing it. The sense of “going to war” here should rouse in you an awareness of the resources at your disposal, a willingness to use them to forward your interests, and an acknowledgement of the fact that tactics, strategy, propaganda, and subterfuge are among the tools you can use – and the tools your employer uses to forward their own interests.

You may suppose that you need your employer more than they need you, but with some basic accounting we can get a better view of the veracity of this supposition. Consider at the most fundamental that your employer is a for-profit entity that spends money to make money, and they spend money on you: as a rule of thumb, they expect a return of at least your salary ×1.5 (accounting for overhead, benefits et al) for their investment in you, otherwise it does not make financial sense for them to employ you.

If you have finer-grained insights into your company’s financial situation, you can get a closer view of your worth to them by dividing their annual profit by their headcount, adjusted to your discretion to account for the difference in the profitability of your role compared to your colleagues. It’s also wise to run this math in your head to see how the returns from your employment are affected by conditions in the hiring market, layoffs, etc – having fewer employees increases the company’s return per employee, and a busier hiring market reduces your leverage. In any case, it should be relatively easy for you to justify, in the cold arithmetic of finance that businesses speak, that employees matter to the employer, and the degree to which solidarity between workers is a meaningful force amplifier for your leverage.

In addition to your fundamental value, there are some weak points in the corporate structure that you should be aware of. There are some big levers that you may already be aware of that I have already placed outside of the scope of this blog post, such as the use of collective bargaining, unionization, strikes, and so on, where you need to maximize your collective leverage to really put the screws to your employer. Many neo-liberal workplaces lack the class consciousness necessary to access these levers, and on the day-to-day scale it may be strategically wise to smarten up your colleagues on social economics in preparation for use of these levers. I want to talk about goals on the smaller scale, though. Suppose your goals are, for instance:

You might also have more intimidating goals you want to address:

All of these goals are within your power to achieve, and perhaps more easily than you expect.

First of all, you already have more agency than you know. Your job description and assigned tasks tells a narrow story of your role at the business: your real job is ultimately to make money for the business. If you install Linux on your work laptop because it allows you to work more efficiently, then you are doing your job better and making more money for the business; they have no right to object to this and you have a very defensible position for exercising agency in this respect. Likewise if you adapt the workflows around agile (or whatever) to better suit your needs rather than to fall in line with the prescription, if it makes you more productive and happy then it makes the business more money. Remember your real job – to make money – and you can adjust the parameters of your working environment relatively freely provided that you are still aligned with this goal.

Often you can simply exercise agency in cases like these, but in other cases you may have to reach for your tools. Say you don’t just want to have maintain a personal professional distance from agile, but you want to replace it entirely: now you need to talk to your colleagues. You can go straight to management and start making your case, but another option – probably the more effective one – is to start with your immediate colleagues. Your team also possesses a collective agency, and if you agree together, without anyone’s permission, to work according to your own terms, then so long as you’re all doing your jobs – making money – then no one is going to protest. This is more effective than following the chain of command and asking them to take risks they don’t understand. Be aware of the importance of optics here: you need not only to make money, but to be seen making money. How you are seen to be doing this may depend on how far up the chain you need to justify yourself to; if your boss doesn’t like it then make sure your boss’s boss does.

Ranked in descending order of leverage within the business: your team, your boss, you.

More individual-oriented goals such as negotiating a different working schedule or skipping meetings calls for different tools. Simple cases, such as coming in at ten and leaving at four every day, are a case of simple exercise of agency; so long as you’re making the company money no one is going to raise a fuss. If you want, for instance, a four day work-week, or to work from home more often, you may have to justify yourself to someone. In such cases you may be less likely to have your team’s solidarity at your disposal, but if you’re seen to be doing your job – making money – then a simple argument that it makes you better at that job will often suffice.

You can also be clever. “Hey, I’ll be working from home on Friday” works better than “can I work from home on Friday?” If you want to work from home every Friday, however, then you can think strategically: keeping mum about your final goal of taking all Fridays from home may be wise if you can start by taking some Fridays at home to establish that you’re still productive and fulfilling the prime directive1 under those terms and allow yourself to “accidentally” slip into a new normal of working home every Friday without asking until it’s apparent that the answer will be yes. Don’t be above a little bit of subversion and deception; your employer is using those tools against you too.

Then there are the big guns: human resources. HR is the enemy; their job is to protect the company from you. They can, however, be useful if you understand the risks they’re trying to manage and press the right buttons with them. If your manager is a dick, HR may be the tool to use to fix this, but you need to approach it the right way. HR does not give two fucks that you don’t like your manager, if your manager is making money then they are doing their job. What HR does give a fuck about is managing the company’s exposure to lawsuits.

They can also make your life miserable. If HR does not like you then you are going to suffer, so when you talk to them it is important to know your enemy and to make strategic use of them without making them realize you know the game. They present themselves as your ally, let them think you believe it’s so. At the same time, there is a coded language you can use that will get them to act in your interest. HR will perk up as soon as they smell “unsafe working conditions”, “sexual harassment”, “collective action”, and so on – the risks they were hired to manage – over the horizon. The best way to interact with HR is for them to conclude that you are on a path which ends in these problems landing on their desk without making them think you are a subversive element within the organization. And if you are prepared to make your knowledge of and willingness to use these tools explicit, all communication which suggests as much should be delivered to HR with your lawyer’s signature and only when you have a new job offer lined up as a fallback. HR should either view you as mostly harmless or look upon you with fear, but nothing in between.

These are your first steps towards class consciousness as a white-collar employee. Know your worth, know the leverage you have, and be prepared to use the tools at your disposal to bring about the outcomes you desire, and know your employer will be doing the same. Good luck out there, and don’t forget to actually write some code or whatever when you’re not busy planning a corporate coup.

  1. Making money, of course. ↩︎

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