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Choosing your employment path
Full-time, part-time, freelance, or otherwise - it should be your decision
Earlier this week, I wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. It led to an invitation to appear on WBEZ-Chicago’s “Reset” with Sasha-Ann Simons, where I talked about life as a freelancer and how — sometimes — clients pay late or not at all.
At the end of the podcast, Simons asked me to clear up any “misconceptions” about freelance life. And I replied that freelancing is something I chose, in part because of the autonomy and freedom I have.
What I said was true: I have chosen a life of freelancing. But what wasn’t clear (and too much of a story to share in that forum) was that I was pushed into that life. I had an acrimonious end with my employer at the time. I had approached a manager — someone I thought was safe — and told him I was struggling. One day later, I was blindsided and found myself without a job.
To be fair, that’s probably the direction I was headed anyway. But it doesn’t change the fact that the timing wasn’t my decision.
And I want to talk about the huge, huge difference between changing employment status of one’s own accord (full-time, part-time, freelance, contractor, etc), versus being forced into a situation.
What works for you may not work for someone else
Even though I was forced to pivot quickly, I was prepared for freelance life. I’d been freelancing on the side for several years and had built up a process and a portfolio.
But truly: that was sheer luck. It very well could have been otherwise.
Freelancing is truly a one-person business. I’m sales, marketing, and finance all rolled into one — and that doesn’t include the client work I have to do. It can be unpredictable from one week to the next.
I’ve said before and will say again that self-employment is not for everyone. In the same way that full-time employment isn’t for everyone or office work isn’t for everyone or a large corporation isn’t for everyone. Each individual has to find the environment in which they will thrive.
This is why when a change is forced upon someone, it can be an absolute disaster. Layoffs are certainly one scenario. Under financial duress, people may be forced to take work that isn’t ideal.
I learned earlier this week that a former employer laid off dozens of its employees, many of them content marketers. The company tried to cushion the abrupt loss of salary and benefits (including healthcare), by saying, “You can still work for us! We’re offering you the opportunity to freelance!”
I was appalled by this news. The way that my former colleagues (and friends) were laid off was laced with cruelty, but the “offer” to freelance was insulting. Intentional employee misclassification aside, some of these writers have likely never freelanced before and have no idea what is involved. At a minimum, freelancing involves an invoicing system, a way to collect payment, and tracking finances to file self-employment tax returns.
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of everything else involved in running a freelance business. I know very few freelancers that work with a single client, so that transition also includes being on the constant lookout for new work. Brazen of anyone to say “Just start freelancing!” like it’s meant to soothe the blow of a layoff.
Decisions made from “no good options”
The underlying themes among most freelancers I’ve met in the past year are corporate greed and company mismanagement. These people turned to freelancing because they felt like they didn’t have a choice: it seemed like a “quick” way to start earning money again amidst a tumultuous job market.
Some end up enjoying freelancing, myself included. I like the flexibility and autonomy. Others struggle with the stress of finding clients and managing a one-person business. And that’s tough when the decision to freelance was made out of necessity rather than a deliberate undertaking.
People who move from full-time to freelance or solopreneur life are only a fraction of the “no good options” scenarios. Women left the workforce in droves during the pandemic (or moved to part-time work) due to a lack of childcare. And childcare costs keep going up while childcare availability keeps going down (since many centers closed permanently during the pandemic). Employers are exacerbating this situation by demanding a return to the office. It’s forcing people to make decisions that they may not want to make.
Many years ago, I worked in an organization that decided to impose salary cuts across the board, to weather tough times. But a few employees were issued drastically deeper cuts (instead of laying off people). The reason? The CEO decided that their jobs “weren’t worth as much” since business was slow.
I had to deliver the news to one employee and she cried. Her response was, “How am I going to pay my bills with a salary cut that large?” But her role was so niche that it would have been hard for her to find work elsewhere at the time.
Meanwhile, the company got to have its cake and eat it too: cut the salaries to save money and keep employees on board, readily available when business picked back up. Same with the former employer who decided to eliminate most of its full-time staff and “offer” freelancing as an alternative.
A former CEO (failed CEO?) said on a podcast this week, “It’s interesting to me that companies are supposed to be loyal but that employees don’t have to be.” That comment ignores the immense power differential between employer and employee. If an employer loses an employee it is unlikely to make or break the company’s overall survival. But if an employee loses an employer? Can lead to life-altering consequences, like losing one’s home or being unable to afford healthcare.
Employers can wield that power at any time by changing an employee’s status or work structure (full-time to contractor, full-time to part-time, remote to in-office, eliminating roles, etc).
I’m sure they feel no shame. It’s been obvious as I see mass layoffs from companies that clearly have enough money to retain their staff. Instead, I suspect it’s a business decision to restructure the company and blame it on the economic downturn.
But employees with no good options also have nothing to lose. And I hope they channel that anger into something that makes them feel powerful. Maybe it’s finding a better job (one that actually cares about people). Maybe it’s starting their own business. Or maybe it’s just the intense satisfaction of watching bad companies crumble.
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