The nature and effects of employment

By John Langhorne / Guest Column

Recently the government reported the economy added almost 300,000 new jobs. This is very good news as the labor participation rate, about 62 percent, is the lowest since the 1970s.

Reflecting on this figure I was wondering if people fully understood the nature and effects of employment. There are three key aspects people should understand about their jobs: they are a social contract; a social role; and have a profound impact on our lives.

Given the importance of jobs in our lives, it is interesting that many people do not really understand jobs in the social context of work and the organization. A job represents a powerful, interdependent relationship – a quid pro quo – between two parties, employer and employee. It is clear that many people involved in both aspects of this social contract have lost sight of the importance of these interdependent responsibilities.

Here are the basic elements of social contract that we refer to as a job:

Employer provides:

  • Compensation
  • Working environment
  • Tools/training
  • Fair management

Employee provides:

  • Time
  • Skill, knowledge, experience
  • Best effort
  • Participation, engagement

At the most basic level, the employer promises to provide a fair package of direct and indirect (fringe) compensation; a safe, clean, well-lighted working environment; the tools (technology and training) necessary to do a good job and competent, fair management.

The employee promises to provide the agreed-upon number of hours of attendance, skills, knowledge and experience, the best possible performance and a commitment to be involved in improving the quality of products and services.

The most striking characteristic of this social contract is how every aspect is changing in the modern workplace.

A social role is a body of integrated knowledge and skills appropriate to a particular situation. Most adults have a repertory of social roles such as spouse, friend or parent. Some are more defined, such as minister, manager or employee. Still others, such as police officer, physician or attorney, are defined and protected by law, license and regulation.

When we consider jobs as social roles, it produces some interesting insights. The explicit definition of roles is essential to the development of an effective workplace. Such definition not only has the effect of improving individual and group productivity, but also reduces the level of unnecessary conflict within the organization. There is compelling evidence that much internal conflict in organizations derives from inappropriate expectations resulting from misunderstandings of colleagues’ roles and responsibilities.

There is a trend to define roles in terms of their responsibilities rather than as a set of tasks. This is a reaction to the over-definition of roles as explicit tasks, particularly in job descriptions.

Having a job has three primary effects. First, it provides an income stream and fringe benefits. Expectations of what is an adequate income and fringe benefits vary widely. Research shows a positive relationship between increasing income and happiness. This relationship disappears when direct income reaches about $100,000.

Second, for many of us, the workplace builds friendships. For people with full-time employment, the majority of friendships is related to jobs. When my wife and I interact with others, they tend to be businesspeople or librarians.

The third is the job gives you an identity. When Americans are asked who they are, they usually respond with their occupation. Early in my business development, I did quite a bit of outplacement for people who had been “separated.” The most negative effect was they often lost “who they were.”

There is an interesting Yiddish aphorism: “Work makes life sweet.” Having a job that delivers personal satisfaction is a key element in the quality of our lives. If you are intrigued to read more in-depth about these aspects, check out a Unit 4 in my book, “Beyond Luck.”

John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates, His most recent book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available digitally at Amazon.