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Opinion Editorials

Workers of the world, disunite! The gig economy is transforming the future

Independent contractor statuses are being reviewed by the government, but they’re asking the wrong questions and missing this historic moment as we shift toward an entrepreneurial society.

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Independent contractors are a staple of the “gig economy”

Hiring workers as independent contractors (ICs), rather than employees, is a staple of many “gig economy” company business models. Uber and Lyft are two notable leaders in the new gig economy; nearly all of their drivers are ICs. These drivers work when they want – jumping in and out of service as their schedules allow, or when the feeling strikes that making a few dollars is more desirable than sitting down and marathoning their favorite TV show or writing the next great novel. The use of ICs isn’t contained to ride services, however. Maids on demand, grocery delivery, and online courier services are all types of companies that utilize armies of ICs.

ICs enjoy scheduling flexibility, greater control over tax planning, and a degree of independence and freedom not generally shared by the average employee. In return, they give up security, health benefits, and other things that are the hallmark of most full-time employment positions. There are pros and cons even for companies. ICs can be less devoted to the company than employees and, by law, companies can’t exert much control over ICs. This is why many companies do not like managing ICs.

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Do a little online reading, and you are bound to come across articles vilifying the gig economy companies who use ICs. Read too many of these articles, and you may buy the myth that no IC wants to be an IC—that they are all pushed into this precarious status because companies won’t make them employees. Many online commentators are calling for the government to step up and curb the abuses of these companies.

The feds are asking questions, but ignoring the obvious

The Department of Labor (DOL) has prioritized the enforcement of misclassification of workers as ICs for several years. The DOL recently stated that whether a worker is classified as an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act is based on the “economic realities” test. The DOL listed the following questions to assist in making a determination:

  • Is the work an integral part of the company’s business?
  • Does the worker’s managerial skill affect the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss?
  • How does the worker’s relative investment (this does not necessarily include tools or equipment) compare to the company’s investment?
  • Does the work performed require special skill and initiative?
  • Is the relationship between the worker and the company permanent or indefinite?
  • What is the nature and degree of the company’s control?

Notably absent from the list of questions is the desire of the workers and companies themselves. The DOL isn’t concerned with how companies and workers would like to define their relationship. Shouldn’t that consideration enter into the determination?

The media’s skewed view of the gig economy

As discussed earlier, from the standpoint of each group, there are pros and cons to employee status versus IC status. Does each get exactly what they want, in every context? No, of course not. Let’s consider hypothetical worker, Pat, who values security and would love a full-time job. Not finding that full-time position, Pat starts driving for Uber as an IC. After a couple of months, Uber lets Pat go due to too many customer complaints. Now, Pat is back out of work and can’t claim unemployment.

It is possible that, if Uber had employed her as an employee, they would have hesitated to let her go so quickly? Pat did not get what she wanted – safe, full-time employment. If the media picks up on her story and spins it into a cautionary tale of the gig economy, we all forget about the many ICs who willingly embrace the arrangement. We also forget that Pat might be out of a job even if she had been hired by Uber as an employee.

We may overlook the fact that Pat received an opportunity in the first place.

If you think there will be the same amount of employment “gigs” to go around if all workers are required to be employees, you are incorrect. In most European countries, employers are required to give at least 90 days notice in order to terminate and employee. You may laud that regulation, which is fine, although it’s not debatable that employers who are required to make greater commitments to their hires are less inclined to hire until they know, with absolute certainty, that they need a new employee long-term.

The same thinking is at play with employees (even “at will” employees who can be let go at any time for almost any reason) versus ICs. Companies are quicker to hire the latter, slower to hire the former. Quick hiring is action that is pro-efficiency, pro-progress, pro-company, and pro-worker. Quick firing is the first three, obviously not the latter. On balance, there’s a strong argument that maximizing company flexibility is of the greatest benefit to our overall economic system. Hence why there isn’t ta ton of chatter in the U.S. for modifying the default “employment at will” standard.

Could a self-employed world would be a more productive economy?

So, why do so many people seem to believe that IC status is only good for the companies that engage the ICs and not the ICs themselves? Using IC labor may allow companies to be more nimble, reduce (if not eliminate) pay for periods of non-performance, incentivize workers to continually develop their skills, and demand that workers consistently perform at their peak in order to compete in a more fluid market for talent. All four of these outcomes are clearly pro-company.

However, the last two outcomes are also solidly pro-worker, at least if we gaze beyond the short-term. We all benefit from performance incentives and expectations from others to deliver our best. Admittedly, the process of shifting workers from employment status to IC status may be, for many, painful. Full-time employment is easier, it’s safer. That is exactly what makes it less efficient. It’s human nature to work harder when you need to, when it really matters. Does anyone doubt that, pound for pound, self-employed people work harder, are more dedicated, than regular employees? A world in which everyone was self-employed, no one collecting a steady paycheck, would translate into a more productive economy.

Is government intervention the answer?

But let’s say you completely disagree with me and feel that we’re not talking simply about a fundamental right of companies and workers to freely label their contractual working relationship. Let’s say you believe this is very clearly about companies using their leverage to push their agendas on reluctant workers. And, you also don’t buy my argument that the company flexibility of being able to hire and fire translates, quickly and directly, into pro-worker benefits. In that case, is government regulation the best way to address the problems at hand, to contain these Dickensian companies?

Government intervention has its limits, the primary one being that companies, just like the human beings that comprise them, don’t generally embrace things they are forced to do. They reluctantly comply. They do just enough.

Empowerment is shifting from companies to workers

Guess what’s more effective than using legislation to force companies to change? The free market when it works well. The relationship between companies and workers is changing rapidly and radically. Because we are living through it, it is sometimes difficult to step back and soak in just how much change has already occurred. Empowerment is shifting from companies to workers.

Today, the playing field is considerably leveled, if not slightly tilted in favor of the worker. Among the reasons for this tectonic shift are:

  • Mobility: 100, even 50 years ago, workers were much less mobile. Our modes of transportation and attitudes about relocation have changed remarkably. Meanwhile, the rise of the telecommuter and virtual worker have made physical proximity to the workplace much less critical.
  • Information: Glassdoor, Vault, and similar sites give workers information about which companies treat their workers well and which do not. Company reputations matter today in a big way.
  • The Internet: In the Industrial Age, the means of production was the factory. Factories are expensive and, consequently, the few who could afford to build them, the “industrialists,” became fabulously wealthy while the rest of the population made ends meet. Today, the Internet is the most important means of production and it is just about free to everyone.
  • The Freelance Movement: Freelancing is no longer viewed as something you pretend to do while you’re really scouring for full-time employment. The freelance movement is bestowing a level of independence on workers that was previously unheard-of. Over one-third of the American work force is now made up of freelance workers. According to a new report by the Roosevelt Institute and the Kauffman Foundation, our economy will be “scarcely recognizable” in 25 years, as this number is expected to balloon.

Though full time employment is safer, it is much less empowering. Daniel Priestley, author of Key Person of Influence, speaks about the transition that we are living through from an industrial economy to an entrepreneurial one. He points out that the owners of capital in an industrial economy, the factory-owning industrials we spoke of earlier, are motivated to keep workers just content enough – content enough to keep doing their jobs and to not challenge the system. Employers don’t want to make their employees wealthy and financially independent, because that isn’t ideal for controlling employees. As a society, we can legislate these employers to do a little more – provide more time off, better health care benefits, etc., but they will always do just enough when forced to act. And, “just enough” will never be all that fulfilling for the employees.

Workers have been handed a golden opportunity to wrestle power from companies

Companies can’t control ICs like they do employees. ICs that work for multiple companies have the leverage in the relationship. It’s game-on and it’s not from unionizing and government intervention. Workers are gaining power due to a shifting work landscape. They are gaining power by disuniting.

Admittedly, some workers are not embracing this opportunity with open arms. For them, it may take a while to see the seeds of opportunity planted in this “problem.” As a society, if we adopt the paternalistic viewpoint that companies must give workers employment (as opposed to IC) status, we are disrupting a natural, positive, and powerful rebalancing that is at work in the market. In doing so, we would unwittingly be undermining the power and long-term well being of the very constituency we seek to protect.

We should all be freelancers, self-employed, entirely responsible for ourselves

Those anachronisms of the bygone era of lifetime employment – frothy pensions, gold watch retirement ceremonies, etc. – are not coming back. We can beg the government to step in and try to hold on to the last vestiges of that era, but we will at best be hanging on by a thin thread. And, the security employees seek? It’s been gone for a long time. My parents and their peers expected lifetime employment. No one my age and below expects that.

We all recognize our companies are unlikely to out survive us. In today’s increasingly quick, hyper-competitive, global economy, friction in the employment market is the default standard. There is simply no longer any real security in being a private-sector employee. However, empowered ICs aren’t at the mercy of individual employers. Their security is self-determined.

This is one fight we don’t want the government to win

Many workers are embracing the new gig economy and its flexibility. The option to work as an IC shouldn’t be ripped away due to a misguided sense of paternalism. The process of shifting from employee to IC is challenging for many, and often full of risks, but the ultimate reward of a successful shift is freedom and empowerment. Let’s not force workers to trade the pursuit of those treasures for vision, dental and ten days off per year.

#GigEconomy

Brett is The Startup Shepherd – part startup consultant, part angel investor/financier, and part business lawyer. A six-time entrepreneur and recovering “left brainer,” Brett particularly enjoys helping startups and rapidly growing socially-conscious companies.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Gabe Sanders

    September 26, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Yes, I can understand why many workers embrace this concept. Though the ability of the employers (and they are employers) to take advantage of the contractors will grow and potentially do more harm than the potential good.

  2. Robin Bull

    October 7, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Brett – If you think about it (or, rather, if others think about it), we are all self-employed. For some of us, like me, it’s just more obvious because we work from our homes and with multiple companies. However, even those who work in a more traditional environment (I used to be a paralegal) are still self-employed. It is up to us regardless of the location or type of work that we do to ensure that our clients / employers are happy and that we are able to continue to working. One of the main differences is that what I do as a freelancer is actually more secure. Think about it: what am I going to do – fire myself? Clients may come and go, but at the end of the cycle there are always companies that need good workers. I’m grateful to be able to work on a long term basis with many of my clients (such as http://www.mikogo.com). It definitely helps to have clients that come back on a weekly basis for my services.

  3. Brett

    October 11, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Gabe, I disagree. As (if) IC status grows, I believe it will be more well understood and there will be more opportunities for IC “gigs” (jobs), both outcomes resulting in less power for employers.

    Robin, I agree entirely that everyone should think of themselves as self-employed in that sense. Unfortunately, many don’t, however

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  5. Skip Mendler

    June 8, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    So eventually, would all workers need to become conversant in the potentially tricky language of contracts, and the intricacies of arbitration? Gee, they’re going to need lawyers, aren’t they?

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Opinion Editorials

DNA ancestry tests are cool, but are they worth giving up your rights?

(EDITORIAL) DNA tests are all the rage currently but are they worth potentially having your genetic makeup sold and distributed?

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By now you’ve heard – the Golden State Killer’s 40+ year reign of terror is potentially over as the FBI agents used an ancestry website DNA sample to arrest their suspect, James DeAngelo, Jr.

Over the last few years, DNA testing has gone mainstream for novelty reasons. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have offered easy access to the insights of your genetics, including potential health risks and family heritage, and even reconnect family members, through simple genetic tests.

However, as a famously ageless actor once suggested in a dinosaur movie, don’t focus too much on if you can do this, without asking if you should do this.

When you look closely, you can find several reasons to wonder if sending your DNA to these companies is a wise choice.

These reasons mostly come down to privacy protection, and while most companies do have privacy policies in place, you will find some surprising loopholes in the fine print. For one, most of the big players don’t give you the option to not have your data sold.

These companies, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, can always sell your data so long as your data is “anonymized,” thanks to the HIPAA Act of 1996. Anonymization involves separating key identifying features about a person from their medical or biological data.

These companies know that loophole well; Ancestry.com, for example, won’t even give customers an opt-out of having their DNA data sold.

Aside from how disconcerting it is that these companies will exploit this loophole for their gain at your expense, it’s also worth noting that standards for anonymizing data don’t work all that well.

In one incident, reportedly, “one MIT scientists was able to ID the people behind five supposedly anonymous genetic samples randomly selected from a public research database. It took him less than a day.”

There’s also the issue of the places where that data goes when it goes out. That report the MIT story comes from noted that 23andMe has sold data to at least 14 outside pharmaceutical firms.

Additionally, Ancestry.com has a formal data-sharing agreement with a biotech firm. That’s not good for you as the consumer, because you may not know how that firm will handle the data.

Some companies give data away to the public databases for free, but as we saw from the earlier example, those can be easy targets if you wanted to reverse engineer the data back to the person.

It would appear the only safe course of action is to have this data destroyed once your results are in. However, according to US federal regulation for laboratory compliance stipulates that US labs hold raw information for a minimum of 10 years before destruction.

Now, consider all that privacy concern in the context of what happens when your DNA data is compromised. For one, this kind of privacy breach is irreversible.

It’s not as simple as resetting all your passwords or freezing your credit.

If hackers don’t get it, the government certainly can; there’s even an instance of authorities successfully obtaining a warrant for DNA evidence from Ancestry.com in a murder trial.

Even if you’re not the criminal type who would worry about such a thing, the precedent is concerning.

Finally, if these companies are already selling data to entities in the biomedical field, how long until medical and life insurance providers get their hands on it?

I’ll be the first to admit that the slippery slope fallacy is strong here, but there are a few troubling patterns of behavior and incorrect assumptions already in play regarding the handling of your DNA evidence.

The best course of action is to take extra precaution.

Read the fine print carefully, especially what’s in between the lines. As less scrupulous companies look to cash in on the trend, be aware of entities who skimp on privacy details; DNA Explained chronicles a lot of questionable experiences with other testing companies.

Above all, really think about what you’re comfortable with before you send in those cheek swabs or tubes of spit. While the commercials make this look fun, it is a serious choice and should be treated like one.

This story was first published, October 2017.

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Opinion Editorials

Do women that downplay their gender get ahead faster?

(OPINION) A new study about gender in the workplace is being perceived differently than we are viewing it – let’s discuss.

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The Harvard Business Review reports that women benefit professionally when they downplay their gender, as opposed to trying to focus on their “differences” as professional strength.

The article includes a lot of interesting concepts underneath its click-bait-y title. According to the study by Professors Ashley Martin and Katherine Phillips, women felt increasingly confident when they pivoted from focusing on highlighting potential differences in their perceived abilities based on their gender and instead gave their attention to cultivating qualities that are traditionally coded as male*.

Does this really mean that women need to “downplay” their gender? Does it really mean women who attempt this get ahead in this world faster?

I don’t think so.

The article seems to imply that “celebrating diversity” in workers is akin to giving femme-identified employees a hot pink briefcase – it actually calls attention to stereotyped behaviors. I would argue that this is not the case (and, for the record, rock a hot pink briefcase if you want to, that sounds pretty badass).

I believe that we should instead highlight the fact that this study shows the benefits that come when everyone expands preconceived notions of gender.

Dr. Martin and her interviewer touch on this when they discuss the difference between gender “awareness” and “blindness.” As Dr. Martin explains, “Gender blindness doesn’t mean that women should act more like men; it diminishes the idea that certain qualities are associated with men and women.”

It is the paradox of studies like this one that, in order to interrogate how noxious gendered beliefs are, researchers must create categories to place otherwise gender-neutral qualities and actions in, thus emphasizing the sort of stereotypes being investigated. Regardless, there is a silver lining here as said by Dr. Martin herself:

“[People] are not naturally better suited to different roles, and [people] aren’t better or worse at certain things.”

Regardless of a worker’s gender identity, they are capable of excelling at whatever their skills and talent help them to.

*Though the HBR article and study perpetuate a binary gender structure, for the purposes of our discussion in this article, I expand its “diversity” to include femme-identified individuals, nonbinary and trans workers, and anybody else that does not benefit from traditional notions of power that place cisgendered men at the top of the social totem pole.

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Opinion Editorials

Dispelling the myth that women don’t get raises because they don’t ask

(EDITORIAL) It has been accepted as fact that women don’t get raises because they don’t ask as often as men, but new studies indicate that’s not true at all.

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Many of the seemingly universal “truths” of business often come down to assumptions made about workers based on their gender.

Among the most oft-repeated of these “truths” is that women and other femme-identifying people are bad at self-advocating, particularly in matters involving compensation.

These include: Women don’t negotiate their salaries. Women don’t get promotions or leadership positions because they don’t “lean in.” Women don’t ask for raises.

This last truth is finally being discussed as the myth it is.

Over at The Cut, Otegha Uwagba discusses her own experience successfully and not-so-successfully negotiating a raise, but more interestingly how increasingly research has shown that there is no “gap” in between the genders when it comes to asking. Rather, the disparity really arises when it comes to which ask is heard.

As Uwagba explains, “While men and women ask for pay raises at broadly similar rates, women are more likely to be refused or suffer blowback for daring to broach the topic.”

This blowback comes from the inability of some people in leadership positions to think critically about the ways in which business still actively dismisses women’s leadership qualities while simultaneously praising less-competent men who demonstrate these very characteristics.

The HBR article acts as good reminder that the cumulative effect of all of these misguided “facts” about women and business often perpetuate the toxic culture that creates and circulates them.

The implication of all of these myths creates a sense that women are the ones responsible for the unequal treatment they often receive. When the message that women receive is that the reason they don’t get a raise is that they didn’t ask—even when they DO—that tells them that their lived experience isn’t as valid as the pervasive “truth.”

This is, simply put, gaslighting.

Even more, telling women that women face challenges because they didn’t do something or know something, rather than the addressing the very real fact that professional women face sexism at almost every step of their career does not help them.

It only helps those already in positions of power blame women for their own archaic beliefs and actions.

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