Ugly Betty, Vanessa Williams

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Quick notes:

  • Workplaces might exploit workers that are passionate about their work.
  • There’s little an employee can do to rectify an exploitative situation.
  • To prevent worker exploitation, it’s recommended a job applicant thoroughly research the company.

After getting my journalism degree, I began working part-time at a small radio station. A new, full-time job at the station opened up, and I applied for the chance to earn more money and responsibilities. I got it and was promised a higher salary and benefits. When that didn’t come, I inquired but was continually brushed off. I loved working in radio but it was becoming painfully clear I was being taken advantage of.

For those that love what they do but also love making money, how do they avoid being taken advantage of? It happens to passionate workers in various forms and industries, but is possibly prevented with thorough research of the company you are applying for.

Exploitation is all too common in the workplace

Exploitation, unfortunately, comes in many forms and happens in many industries. Workers might be underpaid, overworked, emotionally abused, asked to put their job before family, and more.

“No matter what the form of exploitation is, it almost always has to do with misrepresenting something because the employer…wants to get work done for very little money,” says Nick Corcodilos, host of Ask the Headhunter and author of the PBS Newshour column of the same name.

An April 2019 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says having passion for your work is desirable, but it might also give companies reason to exploit you.

“Although passion may indeed be beneficial in many ways, we suggest that the modern cultural emphasis may also serve to facilitate the legitimization of unfair and demeaning management practices — a phenomenon we term the legitimization of passion exploitation,” write the study’s authors.

It was found that legitimizing exploitation had two underlying mechanisms: Passionate workers would willingly volunteer extra hours and find working in their passion to be its own reward. Put simply, employers might assume workers would be OK doing tasks and hours outside of their job description because they’re passionate about it.

Prevent exploitation by researching prospective workplaces

If a worker finds themselves in a work environment that’s exploitative, there might be little they can do to rectify the situation, says Corcodilos.

“It’s probably too late at that point because they shouldn’t have taken the job to begin with,” says Corcodilos. “They should have done more due diligence and figured out what it was going to be like. And likewise, they should have negotiated as hard as he could to get the best deal they could on compensation.”

Preventing exploitation in the workplace starts at the interview. Rather than being overly enthusiastic, Corcodilos says being more “poker-faced” during an interview protects your negotiating position. He likens it to negotiating a car purchase.

“Once the salesperson knows what you really want, the price goes up, the terms are no longer going to be best for you,” says Corcodilos.

Job seekers should also thoroughly research the company and even ask to speak to employees after receiving the job offer. The latter might seem awkward at first, but Corcodilos says employers are likely to agree as it’ll cost them more to redo their job search.

If you’re already in an office that’s asking too much of you, Corcodilos recommends lining up another job and quitting. Standing up for yourself in a toxic work environment might mean retribution from your employer.

These industries exploit workers more than others

As we mentioned above, worker exploitation happens in many industries. However, there are some highly covered ones in the media. For example, academia, the arts, and other creative fields.

Interestingly, Corcodilos has seen lots of worker exploitation in nonprofits. This sector does great work, he says, but organizations are often under poor management as they have little money to dedicate to staffing.

“They wind up hiring managers with all kinds of personality and emotional problems who then foist them on their employees,” says Corcodilos. “It’s the underling who winds up taking the emotional abuse. They don’t want to lose their job, so they just take it.”

Some organizations in these industries try to prevent the exploitation of workers passionate about their jobs. For example, there’s the New York City-based 501(c)(3) Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). This organization advocates against unpaid labor of artists, gathers data on working artists, offers advice regarding compensation, and more.

But perhaps work and passion can never really co-exist. Corcodilos says the whole notion of “having passion for work” isn’t an accurate statement of what work actually is like. Although there are people with rewarding careers, there’s likely still a lot of drudgery associated with their day-to-day.

“I really think that people in the career world and the HR world sell this to job seekers as almost a way to tell people, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you something you can be passionate about. That’s why we don’t pay a lot of money.’ And that’s where the abuse starts,” says Corcodilos.

A deeper dive — Further reading on the 101

When you quit your exploitative job, maybe look into these high earning gigs

These workers know what it’s like to be underappreciated

The future of job searching seems really weird …