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4 Red Flags That Signal Questionable Work "Opportunities"

4 Red Flags That Signal Questionable Work "Opportunities"

Find out why I'm especially leery of jobs that require "highly motivated" candidates, offer "full-time contract positions," and employ doublespeak.

Welcome to the 10th edition of This is Not Advice, a "not-advice" column for premium subscribers of What Works! If you’re not yet a premium subscriber, enjoy today’s excerpt—or upgrade your subscription to read or listen to the full piece! You can get 20% off an annual subscription when you subscribe today, Monday, September 11.

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This week's question is from Will. Will wanted to know if I had any guidance for finding companies that aren't in the business of squeezing every last ounce of juice from their workers.

And, in true This Is Not Advice fashion, I don't. Or, rather, I don't have direct experience in the actual "getting hired at a company that doesn’t bleed you dry” part.

What I do have, though, is a long track record of hearing about the absurd expectations of employers (both from those setting the expectations and those who are subject to them). I also have limited experience with hiring and a bit more experience with working with people from (ostensibly or in fact) progressive companies. And I have more recent experience with combing through job ads and daydreaming about having a steady paycheck and 401(k) match in an ideal role.

All of that experience adds up to having a keen eye for red flags.

As in, there are certain words and phrases that—rightly or wrongly—I've come to associate with bad jobs.

Now, before I get into those red flags, a note for the small business owners and independent workers who are reading: this is absolutely relevant to you, too.

The line between traditional employment, non-traditional employment, and self-employment is fuzzier than it's been since the 1940s. While you may or may not be combing the job boards on LinkedIn or ZipRecruiter, you are encountering projects and "opportunities" that employ these same warning signs.

You might also be considering hiring help yourself. And it's amazing how quickly a progressive business owner can turn into an authoritarian employer.

Finally, these red flags apply to your own job description, too. Your expectations for yourself may be out of alignment with your values or priorities. See how many of these red flags are just "business as usual" for your own work.

Highly Motivated

This time last year, when "quiet quitting" was the anxiety of every Wall Street Journal reader, I read a line that makes my hyper-literal brain spasm. It was something to the effect of:

Most jobs require going above and beyond.

Read within our small-scale reckoning with undue expectations at work, it's a tiresome idea. But read within my words-mean-something-specific brain, it's ludicrous.

A job can't require going above and beyond.

If it's a requirement, it's not extra. The notion that we have to do more than the job description to fulfill expectations would be silly if it weren't so pernicious.

When an employer states that they're looking for someone "highly motivated," they mean that they're looking for someone who will see a job description not as an accounting of the actual job but instead as a jumping-off point from which the right candidate will imagine all sorts of new responsibilities, projects, and tasks.

"Highly motivated" means that nothing less than "above and beyond" will cut it. And when "above and beyond" is the baseline expectation, more is always the prescription since "above and beyond" serves to normalize ever higher standards of performance.

Are there exceptions? Sure. But it’s still a red flag.

To be clear, I consider myself pretty highly motivated. My quarrel isn't with highly motivated people. My issue is with "highly motivated" being a stand-in for "no boundaries," "easily exploited," or "willing to work harder and harder without guidance."


Full-time Contract Positions

Anytime I pull up job postings, it takes between zero and ninety seconds to find one advertising a "full-time independent contractor" position. Just now, I found a job for an independent contractor advertised as a "Full-time, Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm; work-from-home position."

If a position is 40 hours per week with no end date or specific deliverable marking the end of an engagement, it is not an independent contractor role in the United States. It's full-time employment—and, depending on the rate of pay, may be subject to overtime rules.

Aside from the legalities of offering a position classified this way, accepting a position like this is a minefield. Without a W-2, a worker doesn't have the benefit of worker's compensation insurance or unemployment insurance. They also pay a higher tax rate, often have a harder time qualifying for credit, and have to purchase health insurance on the open market.

If you’re not in the United States, please know that our employment policies are draconian.

And aside from the financial implications of accepting this type of position, one must consider what kind of ethical framework the employer is operating with. They are opting (consciously or unconsciously) to heap all risk onto the worker while maintaining profit from the worker's labor for themselves. The employer is accepting almost no responsibility for the person whose time they're monopolizing.

Given all that, the working conditions for such a position are bound to be cruel. Even if the employer somehow does their best to maintain their contractor's boundaries, pay them fairly, and honor the responsibilities the contractor was hired for, they are willingly inflicting psychological instability on their team member.

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