What Do You Owe Your Employer?

A recent post by Lucinda Sans got me thinking “How much is too much?” when it comes to work. What do we really owe our employers?

Most people I know would immediately say, “A good day’s work.” But what does that mean?

In an ideal world, we would all have clear job descriptions, good training, a person in authority who listens to us and believes us, cooperative co-workers, pleasant customers, convenient schedules and BIG PAYCHEQUES!

Pretend for a moment I have all those things. Now what do I owe my employer?

  1. I’m paid for my time, so I owe the use of my time. That means:
    • Arriving a few minutes early and starting work on time
    • Returning from breaks and meals on time
    • Staying until the shift ends
    • Understanding and accepting the employer’s expectations around overtime work
    • In salaried or managerial jobs, putting in the time necessary to achieve the expected results

In my first professional job, I had issues with time-keeping. There was a small flex-time agreement whereby if I came in 15 minutes early, I could take a longer lunch break, which I liked. I found myself straggling in at the last moment and still taking the longer lunch. Why? I had some hidden resentment. We were expected to do 1-2 hours of unpaid overtime each week. I thought my employer should cut me some slack about lunch breaks.

When I became a supervisor, I assigned someone to be the Person in Charge at closing time. After a while I found out she left 5 minutes early every night to catch the last express bus – leaving a much-lower-paid employee to lock up!

Both of us should be assigned some blame because we didn’t communicate with our supervisors about our issues – we just forged ahead with our own solutions.

  1. I am paid for productivity – my effort, attention and output – and ultimately, results.
    • I need to complete my work to the employer’s standards
    • I need to work at an acceptable pace
    • I need to focus on my job duties and avoid distractions

So much room for misunderstanding here! I remember being a cashier during quiet shifts. My duties were to be present, keep an eye on the store (i.e. prevent shoplifting) and accept payments. In my next retail job, I was expected to stay busy by cleaning the store and straightening the merchandise. The one after that: open shipments, stock shelves and make displays. It was probably my 4th retail job when I was told to chat with people and try to increase sales! I was paid minimum wage for all of these positions but the employer’s standards were different.

After leaving transaction-based jobs, it’s been harder to set my own pace and hold myself accountable. My employer cuts me a lot of slack. I could take advantage of that by slowing down, but I don’t – I would be bored, and I don’t want my workdays to seem longer – and of course I want to set a good example for my own staff!

I wonder how employers will manage the workforce of the future, especially new workers who are accustomed to checking their phones every two minutes, and those who are unable to speak to strangers and look them in the eye? It’s a different world out there.

  1. I need to communicate.
    • To show I understand instructions
    • To ask questions when I’m unsure how to proceed
    • To voice my opinion, at least when asked
    • To agree to my schedule or request time off
    • To collaborate on work tasks with my co-workers
    • To resolve moderate conflicts with co-workers and ask for help on major ones

I have had employees who questioned everything and offered their opinions on everything, to the point of refusing to accept any authority or instructions. I’ve also had meekly compliant employees who were easily trampled by their co-workers.

I’ve had staff who told me they were taking time off, instead of asking for it!

Serious situations have included a poor performer who was convinced her supervisor was bullying her when she was receiving legitimate performance coaching, and a bully who kept her behavior just passive-aggressive enough to fly under the radar.

  1. I need to understand the workplace culture and how I fit.
    • Is it a teamwork-based environment or is everyone accountable for their own results?
    • Does real work get done at meetings? Do staff do their homework for the meetings?
    • Are staff allowed to socialize as long as they get their work done?
    • Are socializing at break time and after-hours events more-or-less compulsory?
    • Do people seem to show their “real selves” or do they set boundaries around their personal lives?
    • Are there certain people I must defer to, or give priority service to?

Until recently, my work has been very individual. It’s been quite a culture shock, working as part of a team of 10. We each have homework to complete, and sub-committee meetings, and whole team meetings, all toward the same project.

Our priorities for the day or week can change instantly if a director walks into the room and makes an information request.

Most of us have semi-work-related lunches and chats with each other but don’t see each other outside of work hours.

  1. Where does my position fit in the organization and what is my career path?
    • If I’m in an entry-level position, am I expected to do whatever is asked of me, or is the job clearly defined?
    • Who can help me learn about the organization and how I can progress?
    • Do I need more education, experience or specific skills to move up?
    • Is there a known progression, or will I only move up at someone’s whim?
    • Does someone have to quit or die before I get a promotion?

I had a job once in which someone would have had to quit or die before I’d get a parking spot, haha!

In my organization, there are no guarantees of being trained to perform a higher-level job. For that to happen, I would need to show interest, learn some of the skills on my own, and be prepared to take temporary assignments or work in different locations to get a “break.” Over the years, many of my co-workers have refused to work outside their own neighbourhoods or to try another job for 6 months, so they have essentially opted out of promotions.

  1. Finally, I need to know when to walk.
    • If expectations are unclear, leading to criticism
    • If a supervisor or co-worker makes life miserable
    • If working conditions are unsafe
    • If the schedule or location changes
    • If I’m unable to perform the work any longer
    • If the job changes and I can’t come to terms with the changes

Any of these can be resolved with good communication, but there must be a commitment to action and visible results. Larger employers will have formal processes to exhaust before reaching a resolution.

Someone I know was hired by a family business (a couple) to work evenings and weekends while the couple worked day shifts. After two years, she thought the shifts should be distributed more equitably.  After being turned down for many shift changes, she started complaining. A lot. She was fired and now doesn’t have a good reference from the company. They hired her to work the shifts they didn’t want; she accepted the job. Eventually the job didn’t meet her needs and they wouldn’t negotiate. It’s too bad she didn’t start her job search sooner.

A lot of what makes me stay with a job is up to me. If I didn’t have to work Sundays when I was hired but now I do; if I am expected to take a service call every 2 minutes instead of every 5 minutes; if I’m exhausted from lifting and unpacking boxes all day…it’s up to me to say what I can tolerate. And if I can’t tolerate it, despite the paycheque, I may have to leave. Not many people are hired into a job that remains static for twenty years – or sometimes even two. Our employers’ needs change and so do ours.

Ultimately we are in contract with each other and we each have to uphold our ends of the bargain.

What are deal-breakers that would lead you to quit a job? How do you cope with a job you can’t quit for financial reasons?

On the flip side: If you had (or have) a job you like, what are the reasons?


  1. Sometimes I just want to shout, “Just do your bloody job.” That’s what people on my team owe their employer. And other times I want to tell my employer to go jump. It’s hard being the manager, isn’t it? Like piggy in the middle!

    I am exhausted thinking of all your questions. Luckily, it’s Friday night drinks time. So I can chill and not think too deeply.

    I won’t leave my work. I can’t imagine the situation that happened in the UK, I believe, where teachers’ pay was cut. Even if they did that here, what would I do? Where would I go?

    • I can’t imagine being a job seeker now. At my age, employers wouldn’t risk hiring me because (a.) they would not want to pay anywhere near my current salary when they could hire a young trainee instead, and (b.) they would be afraid to invest in me because they’d think I was going to retire soon. I hope I don’t have to leave my job; that would be disastrous.

  2. Having spent the bulk of my career in unionised workplaces with predominantly permanent staff has been interesting to see how people stay but complain and often do not achieve much. It’s been both frustrating and eye opening and helped advise my work ethic and preferences.

    I do find the whole “work hard” concept challenging. It either requires a lot of autonomy which I had or a lot of proactive and expedient feedback from managers when it’s incredibly hierarchical. I feel lazy if I don’t work 90% of my working hours but often found I had insufficient tasks to do so and felt I was “stealing” to not be actively working. Despite all feedback being positive. Tricky

    • Yeah, that is the hazard of secure employment. Some staff do not feel any incentive to work hard when they can draw a paycheque while doing the minimum. Luckily in the library world, there are an equal number of staff who work hard and want to get ahead, or really enjoy public service. I have been under-utilized a few times and I have campaigned for projects or new roles. But it is easier to do that as a manager than as an employee – because it may not make you popular with your co-workers! (And some bosses don’t want the extra work of generating and supervising more work!)

  3. Fiona

    I quit my job last year mainly due to really impossible workloads. I feel like I shouldn’t detail much online but I look back now and realise I wasn’t dreaming about how hard that job was or how much was asked. I can’t believe the stuff we were asked to do.

    It is the curse of the ‘second-tier’ independent school…charging $20K+ per annum but also scratching to make budget/enrolments and crushing the staff to offer the ‘extras’ and ‘trimmings’ and ‘service’ that make the high fees appealing to parents.

    My new job is light-years better (though still has a 10 year waiting list for a staff carpark!)

    • Haha! Rom’s workplace is the same. He works as IT support in a law firm. Their goal is to make the most money for the partners while scrimping on infrastructure and support. The other support staff, such as reception, admin and paralegal, are very poorly paid and have minimal benefits. There is a high turnover and they just don’t care as long as they meet their margins 😦 I am glad you moved on!

  4. I work in an office with flex time. I submitted my own working hours, which Management approved. Then, I can be up to a half hour late in the morning, or I can start up to a half hour early, and as long as I put in an eight hour day, it’s all good. It took me nearly five years to be comfortable with that concept. Before this job, I’d always worked in environments with definite work hours.

    Yes, basically, I believe that if my employer pays me to work for eight hours a day, I owe them eight hours of work each day. I do think it’s that simple.

    • I wish all staff thought that way. Technically I am paid for results so I can flex my time as long as the workload gets done. In practice, my staff work regular hours and I need to be able to meet with them, so I work the same hours they do. The library has specific hours it is open to the public and the staff can never leave early, so I don’t like to either.

  5. Pingback: Our and EESC Workers’ Group Priorities for the European Union | Marcus Ampe's Space

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