“Dear Businesslady: Should I Report Wage Theft at my Partner’s Job?”
Advice on professional identities & romantic complications
Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to make a career out of writing. I thought journalism was my path. I majored in it in college, edited my campus newspaper, and had a series of internships at increasingly high-profile publications. I did this while fighting through fairly severe social anxiety.
The social component of journalism has always been hard, but it’s also been a kind of exposure therapy for me. I’ve gained so many skills from forcing myself to talk to people, and they’ve made my entire life richer, not just professionally. But I fear I may be at a point of diminishing returns. I know now that I can pick up the phone and cold-call someone, but it still requires so much energy. I keep thinking how much more efficient it would be for me to use that energy on something I like and am good at.
In college, I thought that if you wanted to write for a living, you had two career options, journalist or novelist, and that I was picking the more practical of the two. Now I realize that there are hundreds of things you can do if you’re good with words. But they all seem to require prior experience as a copywriter, communications manager, what-have-you, and I have no idea how to get my foot in the door. Is it already too late for me?
And even if it’s not, am I giving up too easily? Journalism has been the root of my identity for so long. Who would I be without it? I feel so stuck. How do I figure out where to go from here?
Inkstained & Angsty
I love this letter. I’m always excited when I get letters from writers, because it’s the only time I have any access into the question-asker’s professional proficiencies. Practicality aside, I also have a deep and abiding appreciation for journalism, and I’m a proponent of “writing” as a surprisingly diverse profession. So I have a lot of thoughts about the scenario you’ve presented.
First, though, I should clarify: when I’m talking about writing as a profession, I’m thinking about it from the same practical standpoint as your college-matriculant self. If you want to be a novelist, or any other kind of writer that has a high level of autonomy over their work, then you either have to do that as a kind of hobby hustle (it me) or else get fantastically lucky (à la J.K. Rowling).
However, if you’re the “What do you want me to write about?” kind of writer, you have a lot of options.
There is a lot of bad writing in the world. The corporate sphere, especially, often seems to approach writing the way stereotypical college kids approach cooking, resulting in the prose equivalent of Maruchan ramen. I can’t explain why this is, but I’m sure it’s at least partly because a lot of gifted writers aren’t eager to share their talents via a traditional 9-to-5.
Even beyond the actual evidence — your excellent letter that I reluctantly subjected to my standard trimming-down procedures — your professional experience attests to your skills as a writer. And there’s at least one other thing I know based on the brief amount of backstory you gave me: you’re willing to grit your teeth and overcome your own limitations.
All of which is to say, if you start throwing your hat in the ring for writerly positions beyond journalism, I am fully confident you’ll end up with an offer within a quicker-than-average span of time. You’ve got demonstrable experience in both writing and meeting deadlines, and both of those things are both valuable and transferrable across all kinds of writing gigs. You know how most job ads include language like “or equivalent” when they’re talking about required qualifications? Journalism is absolutely “or equivalent” for the type of roles you’re eyeing.
It’s not too late. You might have to do some “here’s why I’m switching fields and why my background’s a good fit” maneuvering in your cover letter — but given that a cover letter is something you, ahem, write, I’m not too worried about your ability to pull that off.
So you can branch out from journalism. Should you?
In one corner, you’ve got some social anxieties that, while you’ve become adept at working around them, make your job less enjoyable. In the other, you’ve got the compelling pull of I Am a Journalist. I don’t know if everyone understands how strong that second competitor is, but I do. My parents are both former reporters, and even though they haven’t worked in a newsroom in my entire lifetime, journalism is still a fundamental part of their identities. No doubt that personal history helped inspire my longstanding reverence for the profession.
Then again, though my parents haven’t been reporters in more than three decades, they remain connected to the field of journalism. You may stop actively being a journalist if you strike out on a different career path, but you’ll always have been one. There’s no Eternal Sunshine–style memory wipe that happens when you test the waters of business writing.
You also don’t have to completely abandon the skill-set you’ve been developing thus far, either. Corporate entities and nonprofits — the entire spectrum of Places One Can Work, basically — put out newsletters, and I imagine a lot of them would jump at the chance to hire an Actual Journalist to helm Weird Nice Industry Thing Quarterly. Or they produce annual reports, or complicated briefing memos. You can figure out how far afield you’re willing to go and then apply to any job that seems like it’s worth considering. While you await your next move, one that actually merits the effort of a career change, you continue along in your current position, which seems to be working out reasonably well despite its drawbacks.
I should mention that the social interaction you’re eager to escape is an unavoidable component of most writing positions. Writers are hired because they’re capable of translating other peoples’ ideas into words on a page, and often that transfer happens verbally. Plus, realistically, starting up a new position entails a lot of conversation with strangers, so don’t forget to factor that in when you’re weighing the pros and cons of leaving.
Still, from the information available to me, I think you’re ready to explore a wider array of professional options. I also think it’s extremely likely that you’ll find something where you don’t have to do so much full-on schmoozing in order to get shit done.
It’s worth reminding everyone that a burgeoning career path isn’t a blood oath. Even if you’re pretty committed to your job, you’re always allowed to say, “Hm, I wonder if I’d rather be doing [something else]” and then get as far as the interview stage with a new possibility. You’re especially allowed to throw out shot-in-the-dark job applications if a weird week at work prompts you to update your resume and start exploring.
Even though there’s frequently a correlation between profession and personal identity, don’t forget that you’re always still you even if your official title changes. And, if you accidentally transition into a role where you feel even less like yourself, there’s no rule that says you can’t rejoin your old industry following your brief foray into novelty.
My partner is a teacher, and in the summer he looks to pick up some part-time work. This summer he found a job with a local food start up. This company sells a particular pasty a few mornings a week from other restaurants, markets, etc. When my partner got his ‘employee manual,’ there was a note that “Currently all employees start as independent contractors and will later be moved to employees.” While federal regulations on this are clear, my particular local jurisdiction is even clearer. These food service positions do not classify as independent contractors. It is not a decision the business owner gets to make but a legal classification.
So currently my partner will owe more taxes on his wages. He questioned the classification and the employer responded point blank that they were doing it to save money. This direct response made me wonder if they even knew it was illegal. The standard fine in my jurisdiction is a minimum of $3,000 per incorrectly classified employee.
I am curious what other people would do. Part of me recognizes that if forced to change, the employer would most likely lower wages. (Although local code prohibits retribution against making a classification complaint.) Or what if the company could no longer be in business with the increased labor costs (since they must pay FICA, workman’s comp. insurance, and unemployment insurance), and I kill a beloved start up? Time to let it go?
— Tired of Eating Leftover Illegal-Employment Practices Pastries
(Wow, that really seemed like it’d turn out to be a Savage Love–style acronym, but clearly I was mistaken.)
I paired this letter with the one above because I see them as two takes on the same kind of problem: the question of “which of these options is best?” when there’s a convincing rationale behind both of them.
But before I get into any advice, I have to issue a disclaimer: this is at least 99% your partner’s problem and at most 1% yours, which means that technically speaking you shouldn’t even be thinking about it. I’m not accusing you of overstepping; when I read your letter, my sense is that you’re invested in your partner’s life and that your conversations have prompted you to contemplate his work situation. Which is actually quite sweet and not at all objectionable.
If anyone’s reading this thinking, “Oh, this reasonable-seeming person might actually report the shady business practices of their partner’s employer to the local governing authority; I guess that’d be an okay thing to do” — no. It is not. I mean, if your partner asked you to, sure, but this would be a tremendously ill-advised crusade for you to undertake without explicit and unsolicited authorization.
I see this dilemma as a procedure-based illustration of the tradeoffs you have to evaluate in job-related decisions. The fact that it involves a bona fide legal violation shifts more weight to one side of the debate — otherwise, “kill a beloved start up” would win this round in favor of “ignore.”
It’s never a great idea for a business to skirt the law. Maybe you’d be doing this company a favor by calling out its creative interpretation of employment classifications, because you’d be saving it from future repercussions.
On the other hand, you’ve done a pretty good job of summarizing the potential fallout: some kind of destabilization of your partner’s job security, including but not limited to a total shutdown of the business itself.
You’ve also kind of already implemented the Ask a Manager technique of raising the issue via a collaborative, “Hey, thought you’d want to be apprised of your extralegal activities.” That went nowhere. That means the only remaining option is to actually make this a Thing.
I’m not a lawyer or an ethics expert, but my ruling is that you let it go. If nothing else, it seems like taking this on is going to be a huge pain in the ass, and when you combine that with a threat to your household income, not to mention the potential demise of a well-regarded local institution, it seems like the risks outweigh the rewards.
Besides, it sounds as though this is a temporary condition. If the problem will be resolved whenever your partner achieves full-on employee status, I’m not sure there’s much benefit to rocking the boat in the meantime.
I share your curiosity about how other people would handle this, though, so I’d be interested in hearing counterarguments in the comments. Is there a middle ground I’m missing here, and/or does anyone disagree with this ruling? Inquiring businessladies and concerned partners want to know.
Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet (including but not limited to Twitter)
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