The mother fish swam backstroke near the top of the aquarium. Swim bladder inflated like a balloon. Colour faded. Gills barely moving. Nearly six years old, a pretty good run for a fish of her breed.
The other fish swam past, continuing their endless journey within the confines of the tank. Ignoring her piscine plight, in the same way humans pretend not to see the homeless, or step over rather than help fallen passengers at train stations to avoid being late for work.
Sensing vulnerability, occasionally one of the smaller fish would dart in to nip at her fins or tail. The mother fish was not strong enough to stand up for herself. An ignoble way for her journey to end.
I walked across the room, intending to put a swift end to the mother fish’s suffering, when the lockdown kitten proudly strutted by carrying in his mouth a package almost as large as he was.
Suspecting mischief, I moved to intercept. He feinted left. Dodged right. Bolted between my outstretched hands and disappeared upstairs.
Forty-five minutes later I had managed to extract the lockdown kitten from his hiding place underneath my younger son’s bed. His treasure turned out to be a large packet of bacon, that he had liberated from the kitchen of one of the neighbours.
Summertime open windows creating a world of opportunity for a feline with a flexible concept of ownership.
Walking back past the aquarium, I observed a flurry of activity. A feeding frenzy was taking place. Dozens of fish, including many of her children and grandchildren, devoured the carcass of the mother fish. In less than an hour, she had been reduced to a mere skeleton.
Systematically stripped of all she had once been. Her possessions. Privacy. Reputation. Self-esteem. Status. Territory. Very existence. Reduced to a raw input. A consumable commodity, existing only to satisfy the basic needs of those bigger and stronger than her.
Soon to become just a rapidly fading memory. Then, not even that.
I buried her remains in the garden. Annoyed at losing his bacon, the lockdown kitten promptly dug them up and ate them too.
Over the last few weeks, I have spent an unhealthy amount of time reviewing a collection of employment contracts. Viewing the world from the other side of the negotiating table. For the first time in almost 20 years, I was considering joining the ranks of the employed.
In some ways, this was an appealing prospect. Letting somebody else drive for a change.
Not having to worry about finding and keeping clients.
Not being the escalation point of last resort.
Not having the buck stop with me.
Less control. Less power. Less responsibility. A paid holiday, after the constant demands of running a business.
Role defined by a duty statement, rather than comprising of “other duties as required”.
Most things becoming somebody else’s problem. Making sales. Landing clients. Balancing the books. Detecting fraud. Developing products. Enforcing contracts. Fending off lawsuits. Negotiating prices. Paying the bills. Hiring, mentoring, training, and occasionally firing staff.
Adhering less to the old mantra of “spend the company’s money like it is your own”. For once, the firm’s money would not actually be my own.
Of course, there are some downsides of employment.
Having a boss.
Asking for permission.
My efforts enriching others, rather than myself.
Performance measured and monitored.
Politics and presenteeism.
Being expected to play the game. A difficult ask, once you’ve seen through it. A genie that won’t ever go back in the bottle.
The premise of an employment contract should be a simple agreement between two parties to reward a fair day’s work with a fair day’s pay. It isn’t complicated.
Or so I had thought!
Some of the contracts I reviewed ran for more than 30 pages of densely worded legalese. Containing more traps than an episode of Scooby-Doo. Covering not only the employee’s contracted working hours, but seeking to control or curtail many of the freedoms they enjoy outside of them.
Reading through them was a tedious, though eye-opening experience.
Runnng a business had taught me that everything is negotiable.
Years of experience dealing with contracts and lawyers had shown that, like many contracts, much of the content would be neither enforced nor enforceable.
Employers rely on apathy, fear, and ignorance in their employees.
Knowing few employees would read every word.
Fewer still would comprehend their implications.
Only a vanishingly small number would have the financial means to defend a threatened legal action.
Today I thought I’d explore some of the more onerous things those contracts demanded of a prospective employee. These asks were being made before an employment relationship even existed, while the prospective employee was still being wooed by the would-be employer. The lingerie and seduction part of the courtship, long before the let down of the flannelette pyjama-clad relationship realities are revealed.
Freedom of expression
Many contracts require the employee to grant ownership of intellectual property developed during their employment to the employer.
One contract laid claim to the entirety of an employee’s creativity.
Whether related to work or not.
Created during working hours or not.
Using the employer’s equipment or not.
An employee pens a best-selling novel during their evenings and paid vacation? The firm owns it.
Banker by day, garden shed tinkerer by night, inventing a hoverboard on the weekend? Bank owns it.
Employee running some side hustles, perhaps a network of content-based affiliate marketing sites?
As worded in that contract, the employer claims ownership of them all.
Freedom of assembly
Several contracts sought control over what activities an employee could engage in outside of work.
Employers fearing their employees may engage in dodgy dealings which may harm the reputation of the firm. Supporting unsavoury political parties, sporting teams, or sexual proclivities.
They required employees to seek permission before undertaking any new outside activities.
Coaching their child’s sporting team?
Being a blogger, influencer, podcaster, or YouTuber?
The employer’s decision was final, but would not be “unreasonably” withheld. What constituted “reasonable” was not defined.
Imposing such a permission gate presents a potential trap for the employee.
By flagging they had time for a life outside of work, they risk declaring they aren’t working hard enough or don’t have enough to do.
Good employers recognise that a balanced lifestyle produces happier and more productive employees. Large consultancies and American investment banks on the other hand, not so much.
Freedom of trade
Most of the employment contracts contained “non compete” clauses.
Employees asked to agree not to poach clients. Not to share trade secrets. Not to lure away colleagues, for an arbitrary period after their employment ceases.
The scope, coverage, and duration of these clauses varied considerably.
A few contracts were worded such that the employee was forbidden from working for anyone else in the sector. Or anyone they potentially met through the firm. Or any employer who happened to use any of the software products the firm used.
As worded, the employee would be unable to work for anyone who used any of the three leading cloud computing providers, because the employer used them all. Nor join any firm that had visited or participated in industry, networking, or trade show events.
In other words, if enforced, the employee would be prevented from performing paid work doing anything remotely related to the function they had previously earned a living performing.
Freedom of ownership
Most of the employment contracts contained blackout periods, during which the employee was unable to deal in the employer’s shares to avoid the risk of insider trading.
Some required any investment activity made by the employee, or their family members, to be pre-approved by the firm. Regardless of market or sector. Even that automatic monthly purchase of Vanguard’s Global Index Tracker in your child’s ISA would require pre-approval. Every. Single. Month.
One contract went so far as requiring the employee to authorise the firm having direct access to their family’s personal investment accounts, to ensure compliance.
A different contract required employees to agree that performance bonuses were subject to open-ended clawback provisions. Should the firm subsequently decide, at any point in the future, that those bonuses were no longer deserved, the employee would return the monies immediately and in full.
Think about that for a moment. That performance bonus you received 7 years ago from a previous employer, and subsequently put towards your house deposit, is suddenly demanded back. How easily could you come up with a five or six-figure sum like that, with no warning?
A third contract required employees to allow the installation of remote monitoring and deletion software on their personal electronic devices. Phones. iPads. Computers.
Every personal text message, email, website visit, and keystroke performed on their own devices would be automatically shared with the firm.
Freedom from discrimination
Many roles offered generous benefits packages, including optional insurance products for health, life, and total permanent disability coverage.
Reading through the small print, a couple of contracts stated these insurance benefits would immediately cease the moment an employee reached state pension age. This meant the salary package offered to older employees is worth considerably less than that on offer to their younger colleagues.
One contract stated details and outcomes of any medical treatment sought under the firm’s health insurance policy would be automatically shared with the firm. Becoming a relevant factor for advancement and retention decisions. Cancer screening. Counselling. Genetic testing.
Several clearly stated discussing contract terms, salary, or benefits with other employees constituted grounds for immediate dismissal. All pending performance bonuses and stock options would be forfeit.
Freedom of conscience
A slightly bizarre contract required employees to be vocal supporters of the organisation on social media. Sharing and liking corporate posts with social and professional networks to amplify reach. Failure to do so constituted a breach of employment conditions and would be subject to disciplinary action.
Turning their large workforce into an army of sycophantic cheerleaders. “Go team!”
Another contract insisted that throughout their time of employment, the employee was prevented from mentioning their employer on social media entirely. Understandable perhaps, had the firm been a national security agency or discreet private bank. This condition produced some very entertaining LinkedIn profiles!
A different contract banned staff from posting anything on the internet, that had not been vetted by the firm’s legal and marketing departments.
As written, the scope of the ban wasn’t just the firm’s website, or writing articles in the context of representing the firm. It covered leaving reviews on Allrecipes, Amazon, or Tripadvisor. Commenting on Facebook, Reddit, or YouTube. Uploading holiday photos to Instagram. Sharing meme stock tips via Tiktok.
I had seen or heard about variants of most of the above over the years.
The more onerous contracts sought to extend the employer’s power over all facets of their employees’ lives, and those of their immediate families.
Seeking a relationship bordering on ownership, rather than simply employment. To consume every aspect of the employee, as the cannibalistic fish had consumed their mother.
These firms took a flexible view of ownership, not dissimilar to the lockdown kitten pilfered bacon. Placing ever more outrageous demands on their employees. Not compulsory of course, a prospective employee was free to say no, fully aware that everybody who works for the firm signed up to the same conditions without making a fuss.
Controlling their voice, time, thoughts, imaginations, and actions.
Asking them to voluntarily sign away many of their freedoms and privacy.
It surprised me that employers would consciously and explicitly choose not to measure employees based on outcomes and productivity, but rather by time served in front of a keyboard.
Creating a workforce of unhappy salary collectors, rather than delivery focussed problem solvers.
It was an odd choice. Driven by fear, greed, and incompetence.
Not the way I would run a business. But then as an employee, these would not be my businesses to run.