Capitalism: The Gap Between Employer Expectations and the Terms of Employment

In workplaces it is common for employees to be asked to work additional hours over and above the terms of their employment, without additional compensation, in order that the firm can meet its goals. Often when asked to do this, employees will say yes because even though they are not being adequately compensated for their work, they do not want their coworkers to have to bear an unbearable burden of the work that needs to be done, and they know that if they do not work additional hours one of their colleagues will have to do even more of the work. In this situation capitalism makes use of the laudable desire of workers to support their colleagues and prevent them from bearing an undue burden in order to exploit those very workers by drafting terms of employment that do not reflect their actual expectations of their employees.

In most jobs within the context of capitalist societies the terms of employment for a position explicitly reflect the notion that the employee will work X hours at the rate of pay Y dollars/hour. Yet, as has been noted above, at the same time, it is often expected that employee will work additional hours over and above the legally expressed terms of employment in order to meet certain goals that the firm has without additional financial compensation. That this is an expectation that employers have is clear from the way in which they praise workers who go above and beyond and work additional hours without compensation, and condemn those who just put in the hours that are expressed in their terms of employment, as if the good worker was the one who ensures that the firms meets all of its goals, and the bad worker is the one who just puts in his time without concern that the firm meets it goals.   Workers typically go along with this expectation for the reasons that they do not want to put an undue burden on their colleagues as was noted above and they do not want to be condemned as a bad worker for not doing their part to help the company grow. In this way, the commendable desire of the employee to avoid putting an undue burden on his or her fellow employees is turned against the employees themselves, and used to further the efficiency and growth of the firm.

This rendering of commendable desires into tools for the purposes of efficiency and growth is particularly exploitative in this context, because the terms of employment that the employee formally agrees with do not express the expectation of the firm. In this way the business employs people under the pretense that they will have to work X hours a week at a rate of Y dollars/hour while recognizing that the hours expressed in the terms of employment will not be sufficient for the person to complete their work.  The impetus to take this kind of approach often results from budgetary and other constraints and does not suggest that employers are evil people, but it is exploitative because in order to respect someone you must be completely forthright and honest in making legal agreements with them. Otherwise, you are merely trying to manipulate the other person, and turn them into an instrument for your own purposes, a mere means, so to speak. Yet in this case the legal agreement laying out the terms of employment does not reflect the expectations of the employer, but instead only something that the employer thinks that the employee will agree to, and thus in this instance the employer manipulates or exploits the employee.

It might be argued that in many contexts overtime is used to compensate people for the hours they work over and above those stated in their terms of employment. In response I would say that while this is true, there are many contexts where claiming overtime is not condoned because of budgetary restraints, and in which people are still expected and asked to work additional hours without compensation.  So in this context my point holds in its entirety.

In addition, someone might argue that employees are not really exploited because even though their terms of employment do not express the expectations of their employer, employees usually know that they are expected to work more hours than expressed in their terms of employment to meet the firm’s goals. So, it is not as if the employees are being fooled or duped.

Whether it is true that employees understand that the terms of employment do not reflect the employer’s expectations is an open question that could only be answered through empirical research, but it seems unlikely that this objection holds water. If all employees understand that the terms of employment they agree to do not reflect the actual expectations of their employer than there is little reason for employers to not explicitly express their expectations in the terms of employment. A defender of this objection would have to answer the question of why employers do not express their expectations in the terms of employment if this is not to try to manipulate people and make employment at their firm seem more enticing than it actually is.

One question that the preceding discussion raises is whether this form of exploitation is a necessary part of capitalism that is brought on by the economic imperatives that it unleashes, or whether these exploitative practises could be eliminated while preserving capitalism. One’s ultimate position on this issue will determine where one stands on the future of capitalism, but whatever position one takes one must recognize the affront to human decency that is represented by the forms of exploitation that were discussed above. Unfortunately, the practise of disguising expectations behind more enticing terms of employment has become so commonplace that we have forgotten that it is fundamentally exploitative.

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2 thoughts on “Capitalism: The Gap Between Employer Expectations and the Terms of Employment

  1. Very interesting post. I think a part of the problem has to do with the structure of corporations/firms, where the structure of power is such that the corporation/firm is faceless and anonymous until you set out to do something for yourself, then the firm is your colleagues and not just a name. There’s asymmetry in your relation to the company and the company’s relation to you, that plays to the advantage of the company. If you’re let go, then it’s the faceless company and not your colleagues, not even your boss who you considered a friend but had to let you go regardless, that is responsible, but if you resign, then you are deserting your colleagues and friends. That’s just an example, but the point is that corporate structuring is effective in influencing workers in different ways depending on the needs of the situation.

    • I completely agree with your analysis and to be honest I find corporate structures very troubling. How can we see ourselves as rational, autonomous citizens with dignity when necessity requires us to enter situations in which our very desires are used to facilitate our exploitation? But at the same time I have difficult time understanding what a more egalitarian relationship between employer and employee might look like. The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that we live in complex societies where large scale organizations seem to be necessary. The question becomes how can we reconcile the seeming necessity of large scale organization with a commitment to equality and freedom? I would be interested to know what you think about this issue.

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