The Expendable Employee

Quite often, I’ll read or hear stories from readers, from friends, and from other online sources that revolve around a company treating an employee pretty poorly. Tell me if any of these stories sound familiar…

Your company hires a new employee doing the same job as you and pays them a significant amount more than what you’re earning after having worked there for a while. You bring this up to management and, regardless of what answer they give, your salary stays low.

Your boss quickly says no to any request for a raise, even after a long history of good performance reviews.

Your scheduled time off is constantly altered without even consulting with you at all, often forcing you to cancel personal plans at the last minute.

People who engage in negative, backstabbing behavior in your workplace are rewarded, while people who don’t engage in that behavior end up with a knife in their back and lose their jobs or opportunities for promotion.

You are constantly asked to take on difficult tasks from other workers, often even from higher-paid workers, but aren’t compensated for it.

Stories like this are extremely common, and they all come back to one key point: If your business treats you in a disrespectful manner like this, they view you as expendable. They either do not see you as valuable, or else they believe you will just accept the poor treatment and bear it. In either case, you are nothing more than a cog in the machine to them.

The root cause of this situation is twofold. One, companies today often have a very short term focus. It’s far better to get as much value out of an employee as possible this quarter and not really worry about things beyond that, unless the employee is exceptional and a key asset to the organization. Two, many employees are forcing themselves into subservience by continuing to wear “golden handcuffs,” an idea I covered in detail in my recent article on regretting working too hard. Once you put yourself in a position where you have ceded power to your employer because you need that paycheck, then they can push a lot of mistreatment right back at you.

In short, many companies believe that most individual employees need them far more than they need the individual employees, and will treat individual employees accordingly.

If you’re being treated in an unfair way at work, there’s really only one way to change that mistreatment: you need to move from a position where you’re expendable and they’re not to a position where they’re expendable and you’re less expendable. Without that shift, you will never receive the salary or treatment that you should receive for your work.

So, how do you do that? There are several things you need to do.

First of all, as discussed in that “working too hard” article, you need to break the golden handcuffs. This is first and foremost. You cannot be fully financially beholden to the sustained continuation of your job. If you can’t financially survive a job loss of a few months or a significant reduction in salary, then you are financially beholden to your job. It is likely that your boss knows this, and thus your boss knows that the organization has leverage over you and can treat you quite poorly and get away with it.

After all, any risk to disruption of your job is financial risk to your current lifestyle and financial structure, so you’ll do everything you can to minimize risk at your job, and that often means accepting awful treatment.

That has to end.

The first step in breaking the “golden handcuffs” is to start living a lifestyle that’s below your income level. This doesn’t mean that you live like you’re in poverty. It means that you live as though you make, say, 20% less than you do, and you use the other 20% to give yourself some personal and professional freedom so that you’re never locked into an onerous employment situation again.

There are many, many methods for making that transition. Your goal should be to cut out the 20% of your spending that matters the least to you. Experimentation works well here. For starters, look for things you can do once that permanently reduce your spending going forward, such as replacing your home lighting with LEDs and installing weather strips where there is air leakage. Try replacing a lot of your everyday household purchases with store brand versions – things like hand soap, dishwashing soap, shower soap, pasta, and so on are typically unnoticeably different in store brand form. You should consider steps like eliminating your cable bill entirely by cancelling the service and switching to a mix of Netflix and free over-the-air signals for your television service. There are many, many things you can do to cut your spending – here are 100 of them, just to get you started.

When you’re doing this cutting, make sure that you’re not just replacing it with more spending. Instead, start doing automatic things with that money. If you’ve figured out how to cut $500 a month from your spending, have that money automatically transferred to your savings throughout the month, then do smart things with that money. Your bank should be able to set up this kind of automatic transfer for you. I suggest transferring small amounts each week.

The first “smart thing” you should do is build an emergency fund. Your savings account should always have at least $2,000 in it, and ideally should have at least a month’s worth of living expenses in there. This is money you can tap if things go haywire in your life without having to add to existing credit card balances.

Once you have an emergency fund, start eliminating your debts. Make a list of every debt you have, ordered by interest rate, with the largest interest rate on top. Make your normal monthly payments on each of these, but then make a big extra payment – as much as you can muster – on the top debt on that list. When it’s gone – and with this method, it’ll disappear in a matter of a few months – cross it off and move on to the next one, but don’t forget to add that newly paid off debt’s minimum monthly payment to the amount you’re automatically transferring, as described above.

Once that pile of debts is completely empty (or close to it), you’ve largely broken those golden handcuffs. You’re living on an income that’s far less than what you’re earning and you have a healthy emergency fund to boot. Losing your job is no longer the ominous threat that it once was. It’s now just an annoyance, but one you can easily survive and easily deal with.

Having this level of financial freedom changes a lot of rules for you. It enables you to consider job changes and even career changes. It gives you the resources you need to seek out additional training beyond what your employer might pay for. It also gives you the resources you need to be able to be more assertive at work.

That assertive part is key. Quite often, those who are held down with golden handcuffs are very afraid to speak up on their own behalf, so they accept whatever treatment they’re given. Without those handcuffs, it’s much easier to speak up on your behalf because there’s much less to lose. You don’t have to be afraid to ask for a raise. You don’t have to be afraid to ask for time off. You don’t have to be afraid to request and advocate for some reassignment of duties. The worst case scenario of standing up for yourself – a job loss – is far less frightening if you know you can survive comfortably for a while without your job.

What’s next, after you’ve broken your golden handcuffs? You need to make yourself as valuable as possible in your current position from the eyes of someone outside the company. Let’s break this down a little bit.

The first part of that statement is to make yourself as valuable as possible in your current position. This does not mean throwing yourself into endless hours of drudge work. It means evaluating the work that you do, figuring out where you actually provide a lot of value, and then maximizing that while minimizing the other stuff.

Ask yourself these two questions: what is it that you’re paid to do around here, the thing where you bring special skills to the table? and what can you do to be as valuable in that specific role as possible? Focus on doing those two things, and don’t worry about less important things.

The second part of that statement is just as important: Make yourself as valuable as possible from the eyes of someone outside the company. What I mean by this is that you should be looking at every task you do in terms of how it will look on your resume and how it will lift your personal profile in your field. That shouldn’t be your sole criteria for deciding what to focus on at work, but it should be a major criteria.

Again, ask yourself two questions: what, among the things you do at work, looks best on a resume? and what things need to be on a resume to get a similar or somewhat better job at another employer? That’s the list of things you should be focusing on as much as possible at work.

The answers to those questions are going to vary widely depending on your career path. However, I will say that there are a few things that are really appealing in most fields: leadership, project completion, clear communication skills (particularly written skills), and technical skills within the field. Those things are almost always valuable regardless of your specific field, and you should be doing everything you can to bring evidence of those things to your resume.

Your focus should be on maximizing your personal value in your field through the skills you’ve built and the things you’ve achieved. That should ideally provide value to your current employer, but it should also provide a lot of value to you if you were to seek another position.

As you begin to add high value things to your resume, keep that resume updated on public sites such as LinkedIn, Monster, and Indeed. This does not mean that you are actively searching for a job, but that you are prepared in case something happens at your current job. Plus, there’s an extra benefit: headhunters. You may find that hiring agents for other companies may discover your resume and come directly to you with a job offer or at least an offer to interview, which basically gives you an option without you having to lift a finger.

This is an important factor because, quite often, people who are in a position where they are viewed as “expendable” are hesitant to run the risk of actively seeking another job. Having a solid resume out there makes it easier for people to come to you.

So, what do you do if you actually get an offer? Let’s say all of this clicks and you actually find yourself with another employment offer. What do you do?

It’s simple – you take the offer to your current job and ask them to match it. If they can’t or won’t, take the new offer. It’s that simple.

Obviously, this is the moment when you’re turning the tables, transforming the situation from you being an expendable employee to them being an expendable employer. If you are a valuable asset to them, they’ll treat you as a valuable asset. If not, well, they’re now expendable to you, so move on.

Beyond that, having a good resume that’s out there in the world adds to your own confidence in standing up for yourself at work. Combined with breaking the golden handcuffs, you now have the pieces in place to wonderfully handle the fallout from a short term job loss, or perhaps even a longer term one. You won’t fall apart financially and you’re already prepared for a career step, so why not be an advocate for yourself at work.

Another piece to this puzzle is building up a strong professional presence in your field. The way to do this is to make yourself known to people in your field beyond just your employer, particularly to those who may be involved in decision making. Do this by participating in professional groups (especially locally, if that’s available), participating in online groups related to your field, attending and being actively involved in professional meetings and conferences, and being helpful to those in your field that you can help (particularly when you’re not directly competing with each other). The more that you’re “known” as a positive force in your field, the better off your career prospects are going to be.

There is one final ingredient in this pie, however: you need to have the self-confidence to do this. It takes a degree of self-confidence and willingness to stand up for yourself in order to stop being an expendable employee who gets the raw end of the deal.

Assertiveness is that middle ground between passiveness (that’s the person who gets the raw end of the deal) and aggressiveness (that’s the person who runs roughshod over the rights and values of others). There’s a balance to be had there – you need to value your own needs and goals while also respecting the existence of others. It’s that state that strikes the balance best between your needs and the needs of others in the workplace. It doesn’t have to be all one (passive) or the other (aggressive).

So, how can you be more assertive at work? The first step is to set some boundaries by identifying what you personally won’t negotiate on. These may be things that you’ve negotiated on in the past, but if those things are untenable to you, you need to stop negotiating on them and never do so again. This may include things like a minimum salary, working hours, or workplace boundary issues. Focus on what really matters to you and what you would need at a minimum to be a happy employee. Then, simply don’t negotiate on those things, and if you don’t have them, allow yourself to be a little aggressive in getting them back. Be clear about them, too.

You need to take responsibility for your own problems. No one is going to come along and magically fix the things that you don’t like in your life. Stop waiting for your boss to make things better, because your boss isn’t going to do it unless you make it happen yourself. If you keep waiting for your problem to be fixed or for your boss to notice your exceptional work, it’s not going to ever happen. You have to make your problem known (in an appropriate way) and have a plan ready to fix it, and you have to make your good work known (in an appropriate way). Also, remember that you are only responsible for your own behavior. You can’t make other people behave a certain way, but only you decide how you behave. No one else can make you behave a certain way – you choose to do so.

A good first step on the path from passivity to assertiveness is to simply identify the two or three most pressing issues you have with your current job situation, formulate reasons why they need to change and a plan for those changes, and bring them up to your boss. Again, this becomes much easier if you’ve broken the “golden handcuffs” and even easier if you’ve made yourself a valuable asset in terms of the marketplace of your career.

All of these actions serve to facilitate one core goal: You want to transform the situation where you’re an expendable employee that relies on his or her employer to a situation where you’re less expendable and much less reliant on your employer. You are shifting the relationship from your dependence on your employer to a relationship of equals, and everyone benefits from that. You benefit because you’re no longer burdened by low pay and poor treatment, and they benefit by having a much better and more engaged employee.

This all starts with you. Start by breaking the “golden handcuffs” and building a little bit of financial independence for yourself. While doing this, bolster your professional situation by building yourself up into an employee that’s valuable at your position at any company, not just your own, and tell the world about that transformation. Finally, build up some assertiveness and develop a plan for the changes you want to see in your working life.

If you do that, you’re going to alter the equation in your relationship with your employer in a way that’s very beneficial to you and your career while also providing more value to your employer along the way. If your employer doesn’t see it that way, you have the tools you need to move elsewhere, where you’ll be more appreciated and the relationship is closer to equality.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.