Power Dynamics of Employer-Employee Relationships and How to Change Them

by | Sep 18, 2017 | Career Advice

After leaving my previous employer four years ago, I started a new chapter in my career. I did what I had always wanted to do when I turned 50: I stopped ‘giving away’ my services, years of experience, knowledge and skills to employers who did not fully appreciate what I brought to the proverbial table. I was fed up with being undervalued and unappreciated.

What I really wanted was freedom. Freedom to choose who to work with, freedom to ‘fire’ those who would like to call themselves my bosses, freedom to say “no” to things, and freedom to work my own schedule, on my own terms. I drew a line in the sand. Sound impossible? It’s not. With a simple flip of the script, I achieved all of this for myself rapidly. 

Here’s how I did it: I started my own firm. In my case, it is a quickly growing Human Resources and Executive Office Solutions firm. But the type of firm doesn’t matter. Plug over. All that matters is that I started my own firm. Starting my own firm shifted the dynamic of my relationship to the work I do, and who I do it for. Simply put, working for “clients” instead of “bosses” re-frames employee-employer relationships as consultant-client relationships. Basically, it lets me march to the beat of my own drum.

Now, you may say, “whatever, it’s all just words”, but you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. This unsubtle shift in language turns traditional, imbalanced power dynamics on their head and changes everything. Read on.

I fell into my first ‘gig’ as a consultant accidentally-on-purpose. I’d applied for a position with a law firm where the senior partner of the firm had been described to me as ‘high-maintenance.’ I thought, “no news here.” I had built a whole career on working for ‘high-maintenance’, highly successful, narcissistic types – “bring it on.”

The money was great, the job was nothing I hadn’t done before and at first I felt up for the challenge. But was I? Did I really want to go back to that imbalanced power dynamic? Or did I want to explore the possibility of turning these ‘job’ opportunities into client opportunities? I decided to accept the job offer, took an extended vacation (8 weeks!) and agreed to start my new role upon my return.  My new ‘boss’ was not happy about having to wait 8 weeks for my return and tried to browbeat me into coming back earlier, even hinting that the ‘job’ may not be available if I did not agree. I didn’t budge.

One thing I had learned in my many years as an employee was this: Start the way you to intend to continue. Wise words from a wise woman—a former ‘boss’, and now dear friend and mentor of mine. I came back from my journey of self-discovery (aka my extended vacation through Southern Greece), excited to start my new role.

On Day One, and after only 6 hours of ‘employment’, I went home to find my adult son waiting for me — he was visiting from out of town.  “Would it be terribly unprofessional of me to send my new boss an email tonight, telling him that I am not interested in the position and it is simply not for me?”, I asked my then-29-year-old conservative businessman son. He laughed. He thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. He suggested I may want to give it at least another day and speak to my new ‘boss’ about the reasons I was no longer interested and did not think the dynamic would work for me. “No, I think I’ll just tell him to go [insert expletive] himself.” After a bit of convincing on my son’s part, I agreed to go back in the next day. 

Day Two arrived and back I went into my new employee role (albeit with much less enthusiasm than on Day One). I lasted 3 hours on Day Two after which I walked out. Why? Because at that magical number, time and space (for me, that magic happened when I turned 50), and after enough ‘vacation time’ to fully reflect on the next chapter of my life, I was no longer prepared to continue living life at the short end of an imbalanced power dynamic – aka: the traditional employee-employer relationship.

By walking out, I set a precedent, and sent a strong signal of self-respect. The precedent told my ‘boss’ that in order to work with him

  1. I demanded mutual respect and reciprocity between us
  2. Certain behaviours would not be tolerated
  3. I did not want to waste my time or his time since I had determined based on my own self-concept that our personalities would not mesh well together. 

Now here’s the surprising part. It took my ‘boss’ two weeks of persistent attempts to woo me back. That’s right. After telling him word-for-word that “I didn’t want to work for a tyrannical lunatic” he basically begged me to come back. I agreed to do it, but on different terms: as an independent contractor/consultant and only for short periods of time before re-evaluating and/or renewing my contracts. This shift from employee to independent consultant was all it took to change the whole game.

By refusing to work for him, and by agreeing to work with him, my first ‘gig’ as a consultant was a success and the stepping stone to the development of my current business. Turning my former bosses into current clients has elevated the respect and appreciation between us. Now, these former bosses pay me at much higher rates than they would an employee. They place a higher value on my services and ultimately – on me.

Final thoughts: Respect yourself and value what you bring to the table ─ treat your ‘boss’ as though she/he is a valued ‘client’. You cannot succeed without your client. 

Respect and appreciate your employee as though he or she is a valued third-party service provider/consultant. You cannot succeed without your ‘provider’s’ services. 

As my favourite entrepreneur once said: 

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

― Richard Branson

Effie Tsergas

Founding Principal, Managing HR Director

Effie has been a champion of positive organizational behavior for over thirty years. She founded TSERGAS Human Capital over 10 years ago. Aside from her “effervescent” personality and unwavering commitment to HR best practices, Effie is well-known for her work with some of the top legal firms in Canada. She assists clients across various industries with everything from targeted, direct recruitment, strategic human resources planning; and change management initiatives. With a wealth of experience in human resources, workplace investigations, law, public relations, and marketing communications, Effie is a seasoned strategist with expertise you can bank on.