Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Is my advice too mercenary?

A criticism of some of my writing – most notably my piece on exit interviews, and to a lesser extent my advice on compensation – is that it’s too mercenary. Some see my advice as coldly calculating, too focused on individual outcomes over collective ones, and implicitly distrustful of others. When I wrote in that piece on exit interviews that any positive change was “of no direct value to you” (since you’ll have already left the company), people see a dismissal of the value that some change might have for others who are staying to work there.

I think this is fair criticism! It’s not exactly what I’m going for, but it’s a fair reading. However, there’s more to it than that, I want to address it (and defend myself, just a little bit).

There’s a spectrum of ways you might behave at work, from collectivist to individualistic. On one end of that spectrum is behavior we might describe as “I’ll light myself on fire to keep you warm”: behavior that puts others first to the detriment of their own health and safety. On the other end of that spectrum is a “fuck you, got mine” attitude: behavior that centers the individual to the point of just not caring about others at all.

It seems to me the healthiest behavior falls somewhere in between. “Put your own mask on first, before helping others”: look to help others, but do it from a place of safety. That’s the general tone I aim for. You absolutely should try to look out for your colleagues – but not when it comes at great personal expense.

Here’s where things get sticky, though. Companies will tell us “we’re a family!” and encourage us to put the company before the personal. Companies benefit when employees put the job first. Sometimes this is healthy – a sort of “we’re stronger together” vibe – but sometimes it’s not. And it can be really difficult to tell the difference.

I think many people, especially those newer to the working world, underestimate just how ruthless and sociopathic our late-stage Capitalist working conditions really are. (I’m speaking mostly about the US here; that’s what I know.) Most employees have essentially no workplace protections; in most states you can be fired for no reason and no notice. Because healthcare is tied to your job, getting fired can be a medical emergency on top of a financial one. There are very few mechanisms for dealing with bad workplaces. There are very rarely consequences for poor behavior; anything from run-of-the-mill bad management to harassment and abuse often goes unchecked.

So when I encourage people to think of themselves first, it’s against this backdrop. It’s true that healthy workplaces exist, where more collectivist ways of thinking work out well. But companies will lie to you about being that kind of place, and there are no consequences for that. I’m comfortable with advice that can sometimes lean towards the mercenary if it prevents folks from being burned. I’d love to live in a world where less mercenary advice wasn’t dangerous, but that’s not our world.

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