I learned a difficult lesson today. Some of you will think I should have learned this lesson long before I turn 30, but unfortunately I didn’t.
I took a job in September of 2012, right after I went home from Stamford. It started as a part time customer service job at a small IT Firm, but with room to advance. Even though the pay was shit, the hours suited me because my main purpose going back home was to continue my studies.
When I started there, I really enjoyed the work environment. The firm was run by a couple of easy going guys who treated their employees like family (they just didn’t pay them like family). My given tasks at work were not stringent; I didn’t feel like I was locked in a box. At my initial interview with them, I felt comfortable enough with them to candidly say, “I am trying to be a writer.”
I had never said that before, at any interview. At all the job interviews I had previously, I always felt the need to say, “I want this job because this is what I see myself doing in 5 years.” I always felt the need to appear loyal and without personal goals; I felt the need to play the corporate suck up game. At this job, with these people, I felt I would have the freedom for personal growth. There was no clock to punch, no set breaks, no strict lunch hour rules.
Once I started working there, I found that I had even more freedom. They didn’t have a new employee training program; they just sat me down at a desk, gave me my general responsibilities, and told me to go at it. I was allowed to handle my work in whatever way I thought best. As long as our customers were happy in the end my superiors didn’t need to know the details.
In other words, there would be no micro-management.
Going Full Time
Needless to say, I really enjoyed my work environment. Soon I was learning a whole lot more from this job than I ever did from any other job. I would take one way of doing something and then have the opportunity to improve upon it in a way that I saw fit. I learned how to support our products and our sales force relatively fast.
So at the end of my three month probation, they offered me a full time position. They were very happy with my progress, they felt I was learning well, and that I fit into their company environment. I would be a salaried employee, benefits and all.
Here is where I made my first mistake. I still remember sitting across from these 2 guys who owned the company while we chatted over pho. They gave me their first offer, I took it right away. I was even happy to.
Little did I know; this was a salary negotiation, and I just took the first low-ball offer that was meant to set a baseline.
I realised my mistake much later, by then I felt it was too late and “not worth” arguing over. I rationalized with myself that I wouldn’t be working here long term, so it didn’t matter in the long run that I didn’t get paid as much as I could have been.
Not to mention: even though I was full time, they were keeping my hours flexible for me to fit around my school schedule. So that was another reason not to complain.
A couple of months after I took their offer, our project manager left on paternity break. There was suddenly an empty role that our office was scrambling to fill. This is when I realised exactly how unorganized this small company was. They had known about our PM’s departure months ahead, but they had never planned for how to fill this role? How is that possible? (Later I would realise that they most likely hired me to fill his role… but they listed the position as customer service in order to keep the pay low).
So, because I admired these guys for the work place they provided, I took on more and more responsibilities without asking for any additional pay (another mistake). I took over our project manager’s regular duties, while still answering daily customer questions and complaints. Then I took it one step further; I started working on building a proper SOP for our company (we’d never had one) as I saw these were things that were drastically improve productivity.
I created our company’s training program, so that if and when we received new employees, there would now be an introductory packaged that explained our products. In the package, there were detailed manuals that I built from scratch about every one of our products so that any new employees would have easy access to this information.
I should make this clear: my company never asked me to take any of these extra responsibilities; however, improving the inner workings of our company was a way for me to make my daily work easier to handle.
By April 2013, eight months after I first began working there as a part time customer service monkey, I became valuable enough to the company for me to leverage for some real benefits.
In May 2013, I made the decision to finally move to Stamford to be with my then boyfriend. We had been in a long distance relationship since the end of 2011, and both of us had had enough. I also made the difficult decision at this time to give up on my studies as my chosen degree would prove to be useless on the job market. At the time I struggled with the decision of switching over to a degree in IT (I found, through this job, that I enjoyed working with computers, networks, and databases), but doing so would mean at least another 2 years of studying, which translated to more time away from boyfriend.
When I finally decided, I thought… a degree in IT will always be there. I can get it when boyfriend and I settle down somewhere. And valuable time with my boyfriend? That won’t always be there.
So at this time, I was able to leverage my value to this company and convince them to let me work from Stamford. I would be able to do most of what I currently take care of via email, phone, and online meetings. (We never had a meeting with clients face to face back in Vancouver… as most of our clients were in America).
To my surprise, they accepted my proposal. At the time, I was thanking my lucky stars… I didn’t realise exactly how valuable my work was to them at the time, and I also believed it was uncommon for employers to agree to such an arrangement. Ecstatic that I’d negotiated myself such a great deal, I packed my bags, hugged my friends and family, and flew over to Stamford with the thought that long distance was over for good.
Two Years Later
In the last 2 years since I first “moved” to Stamford, I’ve been back and forth to Vancouver for long stretches of time due to the Visa situation between USA & Canada. I spent some time working in the office back home, and I’ve spent time away.
My work since then has only improved. In the rough 2 years I had to spend time working from here, I was able to focus the neurotic energy from having no one to talk to all day into fine-tuning the systems I had in place that ensured timely delivery of our products and proper operations within our company. In mid-2014, I took these results to my bosses and requested from them a raise; they were reluctant, but they granted it as they could not ignore the results I presented.
How I Really Screwed Up
At the end of 2014, my boss sent an email addressed to the “whole team”. There was no one person called out directly. The gist of the email was that he felt that allowing employees to work remotely was reducing our company’s overall productivity and efficiency. His solution was to have these “remote” employees return to work in the office, or have them look for a different job.
Interestingly, this email was sent at the tail end of my vacation in November, 2014. It was evident that my boss was having a difficult time managing (for 3 weeks) the responsibilities that he was used to having me take care of.
Either way, I went to visit my home town for Christmas, 2014. It was there that I–fearful of losing my job–agreed to switch from employee to contractor status. My boss assured me that I would not lose any pay; if anything, they were going to round UP my monthly pay so I received a bit more. He explained that this was a win-win situation as they would be saving costs on paying my medical insurance (which I no longer needed as I was living in the USA, and on my husband’s insurance) and vacation pay.
Impulsively I agreed. It’s my fault for believing that I shouldn’t look a “gift horse” in the mouth. In the end, the horse wasn’t a gift at all.
A January (or February?) evening in 2015: My husband and I were chatting randomly about the switch over of my employment status. When my husband heard “contractor”, he asked me if the income I agreed to was pre-tax or post-tax.
I didn’t know.
A quick email to our company’s accountant revealed that my monthly income (which I now send them an invoice for) was pre-tax, meaning that I must pay taxes from it.
A quick calculation revealed that, indeed, my pay had been cut drastically because of this switch over.
At the time, I was angry. I felt lied to and cheated. I also understood that there was no one to blame but myself, for trusting my boss and not doing the research I should have done. There’s nothing worse than knowing that you have only yourself to blame for the pickle you’re in.
My husband encouraged me to talk to my bosses. After some thought, I refused. I was scared. I believed that if I said anything at all about how unhappy I was, my company would easily tell me, “goodbye”. In my mind, I needed this job, I could not be unemployed.
So I let them devalue my work, I let them devalue my contributions. I was convinced that they wouldn’t care about keeping me on if I demanded more wage.
The Straw that Broke
Recently, in a company meeting, my boss suggested that I work weekends as well. It would be “on call”, he said.
I asked him if there would be additional pay. He said no.
Cue long argument of me explaining to him that being “on call” is considered work time, and therefore should be compensated. He disagreed.
I refused the suggestion. He said we would talk about it later.
It was after this discussion that I realised… my boss took advantages of me that I allowed him to take. When I asked myself, where did he get the AUDACITY to ask me to work for FREE? My only answer was, he got the permission from me.
I gave him permission to do this when I didn’t ask for a higher salary at our very first salary negotiation.
I gave him permission to do this when I picked up additional responsibilities without requesting for more pay.
I gave him permission to do this when I kept my mouth shut about the income decrease I took from agreeing to contractor status.
It was all on me. He continued to try to take advantage of my situation because I let him.
So here it is. And it’s something my husband tried to tell me time and again: people value us only as much as we value ourselves.
This was a hard lesson to learn, and I wish it didn’t get to this point before I realised that I can’t just take the first thing someone offers to me because that’s what I thought I deserved; I have to know what I’m worth and not be afraid to argue my worth with someone who devalues me.
I can’t just keep my head down and grumble my silly resentments (hello Milton!) and do nothing about it; because how will my situation ever improve if I rely on others to be “good people who would realise how they’ve wronged me and just pay me what I’m worth”?
The reality is, people are not honorable, not when it comes to making money. Your employers aren’t there to “look out for your best interests”. They operate a business to make money, not to make friends. So it’s up to ourselves to improve our worth, know our worth, and learn how to get the best deal we can get with what we have.
I wonder if they teach you this at business school.