Deconstructing the Employment Contract

“I don’t want to work
I want to bang on the drum all day.”

–Todd Rundgren, “Bang on the Drum All Day”

The nature of work has changed forever. Again.

The Old Way of Work: “Work hard, and you’ll have job security.”

In my parents’ generation, job security was simple. Once you won a job with a company, you stayed for 40 years and retired with a generous pension. If you were lucky, you got a company car and other perks that went well with a tranquil suburban lifestyle.

A decade ago, that changed with the advent of reengineering and downsizing. As any reader of this column knows, I believe that downsizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many times it benefits both the company and its employees. However, it did away with job security and required a new employment contract.

The New Way of Work: “Work harder, and you’ll get rich slowly.”

The rise of the high-tech industry in the 1990s compensated workers for the loss of job security with the possibility of wealth. The ideal strategy for employees consisted of working for a successful company and having a reasonable grasp of technology and change.

If you picked wisely, and worked for a company like Cisco Systems, you might even become a millionaire simply by sticking around. Even if you didn’t become a stock-option millionaire, those magic instruments still held out the promise of paying for that BMW Z3 or that down payment on a house.

The New New Way of Work: “Make $$$ fast!!!”

The dot-com era ushered in an even better regime for employees. From 1999 to March 2000, the main requirement on employees consisted of breathing. Anyone who could fog a mirror could get a job at over-funded, frantically hiring online pet stores and teen sites, all of which promised to become billion-dollar companies in fewer than six months.

The bursting of the Nasdaq bubble changed the way of work once again. The first to fall were the dot-bombs, blown apart by a lack of real business models. But not too many people shed a tear. The dot-bombers figured they could get other jobs, and the employees of blue-chip companies felt safe, even as the dot-coms crashed and burned. After all, people would always need more computers, more software, more routers, or more good advice.

Even though the blue chips had solid business models, many expanded to take advantage of the free flow of capital and sales to dot-coms. Like a steroid-enhanced professional wrestler, they were buff on the outside but hollow on the inside. Despite some early bravado, the fall of their customers dragged them down as well.

Now no company is safe. Even the mightiest companies of the information revolution, the Ciscos, Dells, and Suns, have been forced into layoffs. Siebel beats earnings estimates and announces a 10 percent cut in workers.

Deconstructing the Employment Contract: “Don’t work harder, work smarter.”

Hard work alone is no longer a guarantor of success. Effort alone won’t give you job security or wealth. You have to work smarter. The new way of work calls for new rules:

  • Rule 1: Control your own destiny. You can feel secure only if your fate is in your hands. Find a job in which you contribute directly to your firm’s success and its ability to employ you. Make sure that you contribute directly to profits. This doesn’t just apply to salespeople; everyone, from administrative assistants to software engineers to graphic designers, needs to get as much control over a revenue stream as possible.
  • Rule 2: Make yourself more useful than your coworkers. As the old saying goes, you don’t need to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the other guy that the bear is chasing. Make yourself more useful than your coworkers, and the ax will fall on their necks, not yours. This means getting your job done quickly and efficiently, then asking for even more work. Beware, though: Don’t fall into the trap of accepting work from your coworkers. Only take assignments from people who are in a direct chain of command above you.
  • Rule 3: Plan on getting fired. Act as though you expect to get fired. Build up your human capital. Network. All of these activities will make you more useful than your coworkers and help you control your own destiny.

Besides, if you do get canned, you’ll have a good head start.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.