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5 Ways the Modern Employee Can Exercise Power Over Employers

Well-connected, critically-skilled employees have more choices today regarding how and where they work than ever before.

Face it: The Gig Economy ain’t going anywhere. In 2020 there were 24 million part-time workers, and one recent survey showed the pandemic increased the gig economy by 33%. While plenty obstacles still remain (like the passage of Prop. 22 in California, which favors large corporations over workers when it comes to wages, paid leave, and other benefits, comes to mind), it’s also true that the future of work, which becoming decentralized and less office-centric, offers the modern employee the opportunity to gain leverage over their employers. 

“Never before have well-connected and "critically" skilled employees had so many choices of how to work, let alone where to work,” says Aaron Cohen, Director of Human Capital at Enspira HR. “If you have the right online presence and skillset, you can choose to be a gig or project worker, contractor, or full-time employee. In an ironic twist of events, as Recruiting and HR teams continue to embrace methods of acquiring talent from the early 2000s, their companies will fall further and further behind.”

Advantage: You. But gaining your leverage as an employee doesn’t just happen on its own. The levels of autonomy Cohen describes must be taken, not given. And they aren’t always easy paths to walk. There are fine professional lines to walk here, and standard conventions loom. But, as any number of happy full-time, permalancers, contractors, and freelancers can tell you, it can be done. Here are five starting points to help you tailor your job to the work you want, while getting paid — which is the dream, isn’t it?


1. Remember this: You are not your job. Let’s start with the Fight Club rule. No, not that one. Simply realizing that ‘You Are Not Your Job’ shifts the power dynamic between you and your employer. These days, everyone from megacorporations to hot young startups have twisted the work-life balance into a pretzel — one you can get for free in the lounge, next to the ping pong table, and don’t forget the dipping sauces! If the job doesn’t have that hold over you, and you’re always prepared to move on when the time is right, you’re already in a stronger position.

“The first way to deconstruct an employer’s power is to place less value on the job title you’ve been given,” says Cohen. The fact of the matter is, your job is not your family. And you don’t have to love it — just be able to stand it. A business won’t always have your best interests in mind. You’re there to make money. 

How does one accomplish this step in concrete terms? Start by changing your mindset. You don’t have to drink the KoolAid; this is just a job. (This will help your mental health on the job, too). Remember that you are not locked into this job. Taking interviews is a healthy, and professionally sound, habit. And let this new mindset inform the following steps too — all of which take a certain personal and professional confidence that comes with knowing that you are not your job.


2. Ask colleagues about $$$. It’s as simple as that. “Employees should absolutely be talking to each other about pay,” Cohen says. Understanding wage norms in your workplace provides you an enormous amount of leverage for all employees involved. Who made the “unwritten rule”? Corporations, of course, which will almost never be transparent about wages. Why would they? It gives you all the leverage. Furthermore, wage transparency can help solve social issues, like the pay gap between women and men — which happily hides in the unwritten rule. 

How to do it? Glassdoor offers some data. Reach out to colleagues on LinkedIn. Or, in the simplest form, ask your colleagues discreetly. Yes, you’re probably nervous to know if you’re overpaid or underpaid, but drop the hubris and you’ll gain a real advantage.


3. Take Advantage of Employee Resource Groups. Unions — traditional workhorses for employees’ rights — are at a low point. But employees can still form employee resource groups, and they should. Start one yourself: What groups represent you at work? ERGs for women, people of color, working parents, and sustainability efforts are all a starting point for leverage: for instance, asking employers to share data about pay discrepancies between men and women. They don’t have to give it to you, but they should, and their reaction better informs your career decisions ahead.


4. Network on Social Media. Your parents told you all about the importance of networking for work, but people don’t exchange business cards anymore — they want to swap handles. These days, reaching out over Twitter or Instagram to make connections with people whose work you admire in your field isn’t just a cool thing to do. It’s the norm. Just like in an IRL interaction, be brief, courteous, and entirely professional. Propose a traditional meetup, like a phone call or coffee. What do you have to lose?


5. Why Freelance Makes Sense. Freelancers come in many forms: contract workers, permalancers, and full-time job-to-job cowboys. They are true gig workers, moving from job to job and often juggling many at once. Freelancing is not for everyone, but it offers plenty of lessons to full-time employees, too. Remember rule #1: you are not beholden to your job, and technically, you could become a freelancer, successful or otherwise, whenever you want to.

First, consider the various Cons: you pay your own health insurance, have to handle your own taxes (and pay a lot more of them), and you’re truly on your own out there. There is no boss forcing you to hit your deadlines. And freelancing doesn’t mean the work no longer sucks — it often does.

But then, consider the Pros. You are the boss. You control the work you take. You can constantly evolve your skills by taking on new projects and collaborating with new colleagues and employers. You can skip lots of big-company bureaucracy. Controlling the work you take means you have the potential to land the gigs that you truly enjoy. And when a company you like wants your work, you have the leverage FTEs always dreamed of. 

So take note. Whether freelance is your route or not, we can all appreciate good work for good pay.

Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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