WWYD: Unsteady Income

In this installment of “What Would You Do,” working for someone who doesn’t provide you with a steady income:

I’m a graduate student who works full-time for a very small production company (as in, I am the only full-time employee other than my boss). I love my job — it’s in my difficult-to-break-into field, I’m getting a ton of experience in all aspects of the business, I’m allowed to grow, my input is valued, and I get along great with my boss.

We had an absolutely crazy fall, so in early December when my boss took a freelance producing gig for a giant company, I was welcoming the slight break. He took the job with the understanding that I would spend a couple of weeks finishing up some odds and ends for our company, and that he would eventually bring me into the project for the big company in some way. Well, things got hectic and complicated at the big company and he ended up only being able to throw me a couple of days worth of work. This has left me with not enough work to do and way too much time on my hands to fret about paying my rent if this keeps up. The worry is mostly existential, since I have enough in my savings to eat and pay rent for a few more months, but this is knocking out whatever semblance of a cushion I had been building.

He is done with his other project in two weeks and we have a couple of projects that should/could come through by the end of this month, but I’m starting to freak out. So here’s my quandary, do I…

1. Suck it up, be patient, and try to enjoy the time off while putting faith in the fact that there should be more to do in a couple of weeks?

2. Look for freelance work or temporary gigs to bridge the gap and hope that any overlap between those and my regular job (plus a new semester starting at the end of the month) doesn’t end up killing me?

3. Start looking for a steadier full-time job? (which would really screw over my boss and would result in my having to leave a couple of projects that I care deeply about).

Am I being taken advantage of, or is this just the reality of being in a creative, project-based field? Also, is there a way to prevent a situation like this from happening in the future? — Tara

“I know you have a lot on your plate right now, but do you think you could stay late tonight to help us finish this project?” my boss asked me not too after I started.

“Sure, just let me know what you’d like me to do,” I said.

“Great, thank you so much,” he said. “I’ll try not to keep you too long.”

One extra project became 10 extra projects. Pretty soon, staying late wasn’t something I did occasionally — it was something I did every night. The “thank you for staying late tonight”s gradually began being replaced with, “Do you think you can get that done by tomorrow?”s. I started wondering if I was being taken advantaged of, and I casually mentioned all the late nights I was spending at the office with a coworker of mine.

“You know, he thinks that you like staying late at the office,” my co-worker said. “He’s taking advantage of you because he knows you don’t ever complain. My advice — which you haven’t asked for but I’m going to give you anyway — is to either stop staying late, or make sure you get fairly compensated for all this additional work you’re doing.”

It’s totally reasonable to want to show your boss that you’re a team player, and that you’re willing to take on additional work without always expecting something in return (or be promised that there will be more money and work in the future). But after a certain period of time, it can get to a point when a line is crossed and you’re being taken advantaged of — and you’ll know it. Long story short, I had a conversation with my boss about it, and the results of that conversation was that I got a promotion, a raise and spent fewer nights at the office.

So what would I do in this situation? I would talk to my boss about it. You love your job, you work on projects that you care about, and you get along great with your boss. To have all those things at once is not something we all have at our jobs — the only problem here is money, and when you’ve got bills to pay and goals you want to reach, money matters. What is the [x] amount of dollars you need to get your bills paid every month? Since you’re his only full-time employee, can he guarantee that you’ll make [x] amount of dollars each month so you won’t have to depend on using your savings to get by? And if not, does he have suggestions on how you could freelance at other places to make up for the income that he can’t provide you? These are all reasonable questions to ask, and since you have a great relationship with your boss, you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable asking them.

At the end of the day, you need to make sure you are doing what you can to take care of yourself — even if that means leaving for another job. Don’t screw yourself over just because you think you’re going to screw over your boss (he’ll survive).

Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments. Photo: jmettraux