The markers of de facto slavery — #1: there is no permanent job

One of the key motivations that led me to Extreme Contracts was the need for more freedom. This article is the first in a short series to explain why I think we are less free as knowledge workers than we usually think.

Suddenly unemployed

Consuelo had worked for eight years in the company I had just joined. She had spent those eight years developing a web product that was generating 9 million euros in revenue every year. She was still determined to keep up her good work on the day our CPO invited all of us for an unplanned company lunch—except for her. The CPO had waited for all to leave for lunch, and when the office was almost empty, he fired her.

When we got back from lunch, she was no longer there, and we got no explanation about her absence. Many unofficial versions started circulating, leaking through the seams of a WhatsApp chat, a couple of phone calls and some rumors. She had planned her life based on the safety of a permanent position. Until that morning… That morning, she discovered the hard way that you are only as safe as the organization you work for is not willing to pay the due penalties and the lawyers to minimize them.

I had the chance to talk with Consuelo a few years after that traumatic event. She confirmed my suspicions about what happened that day. Neither she nor we, as her colleagues, had perceived a single hint about that sudden decision made by the CPO on that morning. We didn’t have the slightest suspicion that the top management was thinking about firing her. Before lunch Consuelo had a job, in the afternoon she had no more. That’s it.

Lessons learned

Throughout all these years I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of that experience. What did it really mean in her life? What lessons could I extract from it? How did it affect my own decision-making then and later?

What still strikes me is how she was relying on a work contract as the absolute assurance that she would have had a job forever. When we think of a “permanent position” we usually think of it as being… permanent, likely inheriting the warm safety feeling about a “permanent position” that our grandparents may have felt in the 60’s: “study, graduate, get a job and rely on it until you can happily live on your retirement check, then die happy“.

This is not true anymore. Maybe—maybe—it has never been and it is a narrative sold in the past decades that is now being proven false. Or perhaps it has grown false. I don’t know, but for what concerns our interests nowadays I am sure: your permanent job is permanent only as long as someone high enough in your hierarchy thinks you are still needed.

As permanent as cheap

“We have rights! They can’t just kick you away!” I hear you say. You are right: they can’t just kick you away. They have to pay a penalty, then they can kick you away. Consuelo was paid the due penalty, sure, but she was kicked away. The company could afford to pay, the price was not high enough to prevent this from happening.

Let me make this point broader. Employment rules may be shaped to protect you but they can only protect you as long as your employer cannot afford to break them. In other words, if the company you are working for is wealthy enough to pay the due penalties and the lawyers with the mission to minimize them, then your job is a temporary one with a reasonable/good exit option—the payment you get when you are fired.
Ironically enough, the more stable, vibrant, developed and successful the organization is, the higher the chances you can be fired. The company Consuelo and I were working for was growing fast, increased revenues every year, cash available anytime. The result? They could afford to get rid of Consuelo, ex abrupto.

If I am owned, then I am a slave

From my point of view, I asked myself: if she was—and us like her—completely unaware of her fate until that morning, how many of us are unaware of our fates right now?

I realized that the Sword of Damocles could have been hanging over our heads anytime, maybe all the time. Was my manager thinking about getting rid of me? Was someone higher in the hierarchy asking him to get rid of me? Or to get rid of someone, just to optimize headcount? If this could happen to Consuelo, then it could happen to all of us. All of a sudden, our position was not permanent anymore: it had become fragile.

As I learned by reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, fragility is the attribute of systems that fall apart when subject to negative stress. A crucial corollary of Taleb’s argument is that detecting fragility is not as much about computing the probability that something bad will happen, nor is it about predicting the moment in time in which it will, as much as it is about identifying the undeniable traits that characterize fragile systems. A system is fragile if it is exposed to ruin, no matter when it will hit.

It was at that moment I started feeling like a slave. If I am at the mercy of my boss—or of theirs—then I am owned. If I am owned, then I am a slave, by definition. From that moment on, I understood that relying on the permanency of a job is a clear sign of slavery: a marker of slavery.

Not just employees

A caveat: I am not saying having a permanent job is a sin or that anyone is worthless just because they are employed. I mean to keep alive in me, in you and in anyone caring about themselves, a profound sense of independence and self-awareness. We should rely on our knowledge, skills, networking, and true options to get the best we deserve. We shouldn’t rely completely on a job. A job is a tool, not a goal, and not the goal.

In the years that followed that morning, I learned that you can extend this kind of slavery marker to freelancers and entrepreneurs: if you depend too much on too few customers or, even worse, on a single project, then you are owned. Being a freelancer or an entrepreneur alone is not enough to grant you freedom from slavery. You need to shape your customer acquisition strategies carefully, you have to design suitable contracts, and you have to set up a workflow which keeps value front and center.