Recently, I met a young man who, for the first time in his life, is self-employed. A custom cabinet maker, he specializes in high-end cabinetry for homes, offices and commercial buildings. Curious, I asked, “How did you come to be self-employed?” “I was fired,” he told me. “Because of the economy?” I asked. “No, it was because of my laziness and bad attitude, but I’ve learned a lot since being on my own.” “Really,” I asked, “like what?”
He told me that he had been employed by another cabinet company for several years and that he had become overconfident, self-absorbed and arrogant about his own value. When his employer didn’t place him on the pedestal he felt he deserved, above his co-workers, he became sullen, angry and lazy. After several months and a few heart-to-heart talks, his employer asked his to leave.
“So, what was the biggest lesson you learned from being fired?” I asked. “I learned that the job didn’t belong to me,” he said. “It belonged to my employer.”
He explained that, as an employee, he failed to understand the terms of his employment, or anyone else’s employment. Here’s how he explained it: “When anyone accepts a job, it’s not something that is given to him or her, it’s a trade arrangement. The employee is expected to show up every day, on time, work hard and do great work. The employer will then provide a pay check and competitive benefits in return. If each party honors the terms of the agreement, all will be well. When one party underperforms, breaking the promise, the deal is subject to termination.”
I was thoroughly impressed. This young man had had a revelation, but I was curious about his sudden awakening. When fired for lack of performance, employees usually just go away mad and blame the boss. “What was your moment of clarity?” I asked. “What made you suddenly see that you were the problem?”
“Because I couldn’t find another job,” he said, “I decided to take on some cabinetry work on my own. I had the tools and skills, so I decided to go for it. It was a very scary endeavor. I was fortunate that my wife had a job and we had saved a few dollars. We risked it all. Things went well and I eventually had to hire an employee. Having to deal with payroll, benefits, vacations, customer expectations, taxes, two trucks and a wife and child, I learned what it was like on the other side of the employee-employer equation.”
“Looking back,” I asked, “how do you now view your previous employer?” “I would have fired me, too,” he said. “The job didn’t belong to me. It belonged to him and I disrespected my agreement with him. I broke the promise. If I had been a better employee, I would probably still be there.”
Over the past few months, I’ve attended several economic development conferences where workforce has been a presentation topic. A common theme at each conference has been about worker skills and work ethic. Even though education and training are sometimes lacking, employers are frustrated by employees who are just unwilling to show up and do the work. “In addition to laziness,” an owner of a placement firm, said, “there’s a very significant sense of entitlement out there. People expect high wages and extensive benefits from day one, and then they might consider giving the employer a day’s work. The real world just doesn’t work that way. People need to wise up.”
What I heard at these conferences was that there are numerous jobs out there for skilled workers who are willing to show up (on time), work hard and become a valuable asset to their employee.
So, back to my cabinet maker friend, here’s what I asked next. “What advice would you give someone looking for, or in, a job?” After a few moments of pondering, he said, “Without getting into the employers responsibilities to employees, which are significant, I’d make these recommendations:
Understand that it’s a mutually agreed upon trade relationship.
- Clearly understand the expectations of your employer.
- Show up on time, every day. Be completely reliable.
- Work your butt off (His words).
- Always, always, always over-delivered.
- Get better. Take classes or find other ways to bring more value to the relationship.
- Be a positive force rather than a whiner
- Be a problem solver, not a problem.”
This guy amazed me. His experiences have transformed him. He has gone from a lazy (his word), complaining malcontent to a self-employed, happy, hard-working employer, service provider, husband and father. He takes great pride in his work, even though the hours are long and the demands are great. I found his respect for the “trade relationship” to be very refreshing. If each of us were to remember that and follow his recommendations, I’m sure workplace contentment and productivity would soar.