Be Grateful. But Don’t Let Them Use That Against You.
by Lauren Holfeuer
I was a few years out of University when a project I’d been working on got picked up by a big company. As soon as it happened, I knew I had to start handling my career from the grown-up table. It was an important opportunity and I stood to gain a lot. Too bad I went on to screw it up.
Until that point I was living the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy of life and had convinced myself that my degree held the same amount of clout as a high school diploma. I’d been struggling to accept my role as a professional in my field until it was forced upon me by this upcoming deal.
I quickly realized that the contract the company proposed did not offer to compensate me appropriately. This didn’t faze me. I felt ready to negotiate. After all, I’d developed the product; I knew the role I played in its existence and that I was crucial for its further development.
I went to the company and provided concrete reasons that demonstrated why I wanted a better job offer: work load, timeline, special skills, specificity of task, etc. I had a clear, rational, and intelligent list of issues to negotiate.
The conversation was tentative at first. I sat in an open posture, nodding my head dutifully with a smile on my lips as I listened to the head of the company lecture me on how contracts work. I was insulted by his assumption that I had no grasp on the basics. I may have been a young professional but I was a professional. Once he finished his mansplaining, I ignored my resentment and returned us to the point: the negotiation.
What response did I receive for expressing my terms with patience and clarity?
“You should be grateful for the opportunity and the exposure that we are offering you.”
And with that, the conversation was over. Trump card. Negotiation finished.
What just happened?
That sentence! How did that sentence get me to shut my mouth and walk away when I had such a strong foundation to stand on? I knew the job couldn’t move forward without me. But what did I do? I buckled.
I thought to myself, “They’re right. I should be grateful to be offered a position in the competitive industry that I’m passionate about. I should be grateful just to be present. I’d better shut up and take it!” So I did.
That was over a year ago. I find myself thinking about my failed negotiation more and more. I find myself wondering if the desire of wanting to working in my chosen field is tied to the assumption that I can be paid inappropriately (or not at all) because of that desire. Is this conclusion implicit? And does it hinge on the concept of ‘being grateful’?
Markets that function within competitive employment pools create opportunity for a particular brand of employer to develop. These employers work from a version of the implied sentiment, “You’re the one who wants to be here. I could have any one of the many who aspire to this position. If you reject this offer someone else will gladly take it. Because there are so many candidates you should be grateful and accept the position as offered even if it doesn’t reflect the responsibilities and work load of the job.”
This philosophy of gratitude appears to function only as a tool employers use to retain the upper hand in an already un-level playing field. Does this philosophy mean a company shouldn’t have to pay a fair wage, or offer decent terms? Organizations such as the one I faced promote a version of gratitude that allows them to manipulate individuals into valuing inappropriate workplace conditions. We are meant to appreciate that the job, any job, exists and that they’ve deigned to make an offer of it. This concept diminishes the value of a potential employee and erodes self-worth. Can this really be gratitude?
In order to combat this dangerous form of gratitude I had to develop a system.
The FIRST thing I had to figure out was who I am and what I’m worth.
I had to learn how to take ownership of the skills I’ve developed in my life. So I made a list. I sat down and wrote out what skills I’ve got — yeah, Instagram counts — as well as what skills I want to develop, and what I want to achieve. Once I had done this it was possible to speak to these points when it became necessary.
Bonus: creating a list of my individual skills made those skills seem more valid.
Acknowledging your skills is key to recognizing that you have your own individual value and that you’re not just the millionth candidate for employment. Until you know what your value is, you can’t articulate it to a potential employer. Remember that if you turn down a bad job offer and a company foolishly lets you, they will be forced to go after their second, third, or fourth choice for the job. They don’t want their second or third choice; they want you.
But they will take you at a bargain if they can.
The SECOND thing I had to consider is that the pressure being created by the competitive market might actually be coming from me.
Instead of allowing doomsday pronouncements about bad job markets and hyper-competitive entry into organizations make me fold for less than I’m worth, I do my research. I ask: what’s required of the job and what does it take to fill the position? I look into hiring practices and any statistics I can find on the company’s employees, wages, benefits, etc. I also look at comparable companies. Then I ask myself: where do I fit in all of that?
Are there really as many candidates as they claim? Or are you the perfect solution to their employment woes? It’s easier to speak up for yourself if you’ve looked at your situation and your potential employers from all angles.
The THIRD thing I had to accept was that what motivated me wasn’t greed or arrogance, and that actually my consent came with consequences.
This realization was hard-earned. I felt ashamed any time I considered contracts to be insufficient, especially when my peers seemed ready to accept them. Didn’t they know that their value was too high for them not to stop and think twice?
I had to accept that knowing my value and fighting for working environments that reflected that value wasn’t hubris. It was me wanting to see myself and my peers functioning in workplaces that appropriately valued our abilities and contributions. Knowing your value doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful when you get an offer, and even grateful if you choose to walk away from one.
I want myself and my peers to occupy workplaces that value our abilities and contributions. Knowing your value doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful when you get an offer, and grateful if you choose to walk away from one. And sadly, just because you know your value doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded appropriately. Sometimes an organization recognizes your awesomeness and doesn’t have the means to offer you what you deserve; they’re not all bad (your research should tell you if this is the case). There’s no shame in saying yes to these less-than-ideal scenarios — sometimes you just need a paycheck — but remember that there can be strength in walking away.
What happens when I accept a contract that doesn’t reflect the value of my work? By consenting to those contracts I feed into the system that allows those transactions to exist. I give my vote of approval and propagate the cycle that trades on gratitude and desire, making it more difficult for my peers to stand up for themselves in similar situations. If I’m willing to accept terms that are far less than ideal then why shouldn’t they?
The FOURTH thing I had to wrap my head around was that if I wasn’t prepared to walk away from the job, then I couldn’t expect to negotiate with this type of employer. The gratuity concept will always win out, and they know it.
The FIFTH and most important tool I had to develop was a gratitude radar. I had to learn to be grateful for the right things. Such as:
+ good work (not just any work)
+ positive companionship
+ health and safety
+ people who challenge me and make me better at what I do
I got duped. They worked the gratitude angle so they could pay me in “exposure and opportunity” rather than a tangible commodity, and I let them. I wasn’t prepared to stand up for myself and I wasn’t prepared to walk away. I am now. I don’t accept this “be grateful” model of employment anymore.
On occasion, I’ll take a job even when it comes with less-than-ideal terms. In those instances, I’ll be grateful for the paycheck. I won’t be grateful that current business practices provide opportunities for employers to take advantage of young professionals and that, all too often, we let them.
By all means: cultivate a healthy, generous outlook.
But don’t let them use it against you.
Lauren is a Canadian theatre artist, writer, and musician. When she isn’t onstage or behind the keyboard she runs the indie company Thigh High Theatre. She loves Mexican food, Bourbon, and adventures. Find out more about Lauren at www.laurenholfeuer.com.
This article has been revised and updated by the author.
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