Are you an exploited employee or an employee exploiter?

Jimmy Burroughes
7 min readDec 14, 2022

This blog was one I thought long and hard about how to write. Then I thought, if it feels uncomfortable for me, there must be some truth in it and that is exactly when to write it.

This week we are talking about employees being taken advantage of. Perhaps someone is exploiting your time. Or perhaps that you are a leader who is inadvertently doing this to your team.

We’ve mentioned a number of times that trust is a key element of employee engagement and performance. When people feel like they are being exploited, it quickly erodes trust. This erosion contributes to decreased engagement, burnout, and the topic we spoke about in last month’s Mastermind — Quiet Quitting.

So what does employee exploitation look like? We aren’t talking about child labor in third-world countries. This is white-collar exploitation and it often isn’t super obvious because it’s masked behind more subtle signs. Many leaders often aren’t even aware that they are doing it to their team and so it continues unchecked, creating a rot that permeates organizational cultures.

Here are 6 factors we discovered during our research related to employee exploitation.

Do you recognize any of them? if you do, use the “Try this” to help resolve it.

1. Delayed pay, pay rises or bonuses — money isn’t everything but in these unusual times, being paid on time so employees can meet their financial commitments is essential. Being rewarded for better than-ever productivity needs to be recognized too. We heard that employees are aware that companies are sometimes struggling for cash flow, but the employee isn’t as worried about your issues as their own. Adding more tasks and more projects to employee workloads without offering more pay is also extremely disengaging when not positioned correctly. Or when it is in fact taking advantage of the employee’s need to remain employed. Indeed the Quiet Quitting phenomenon is derived from people who felt their employers were exploiting them and decided to draw a boundary line.

Try this — If you have to make changes to normal payments or expectations, be very clear, early, and don’t repeat the mistake. Employees are not there to be an overdraft to their employer. Equally, if people are taking on more responsibility, pay them how you would like to be paid. People don’t work for free and there are plenty of other opportunities in the market at the moment.

2. Pushed to cover employee shortages. Because of the high turnover and recruitment challenges in many businesses, teams are often short on members and their leaders expect the remainers pick up the slack. In reality, this reduces their downtime and often lumbers them with work they don’t feel super competent doing, or that they can’t give their best to because they are already overloaded. Our research showed quite often the shortage was explained as a temporary event and were initially happy to help, but that it had become the new normal, and recruitment seemed to be deprioritised by leaders because the employees were making it work.

Try this — if you have fewer people in your team, your job is to manage priorities better, slow things down, say no to more from above, and work with your key stakeholders to align expectations. Look at the internal talent you have and those people who could be given the opportunity to step up into new roles and work to build their experience and transition them.

3. Made to feel guilty for taking downtime — throwaway comments when people take breaks, meals, a day of vacation, or when they leave the office to meet personal responsibilities can all undermine trust and make employees feel exploited. We repeatedly heard situations where employees were made to feel guilty for enjoying basic employment conditions, or that they were somehow not pulling their weight when others were taking on more and more. These comments often came from leaders who weren’t fully aware of when or how their team was working, and just took what they saw at face value.

Try this — your team will focus more and deliver better work if they are rested. Encourage them to take their downtime and come back rested and focussed. The work will always be there but continuing to run them into the ground could mean that they might not.

4. Leaders ignoring or not being aware of the reality. Diminishing or overlooking employees who are raising concerns or showing signs of burnout can really start to take its toll on their engagement. Also doing nothing or being ignorant of the issues and the problems employees are trying to solve means they feel exposed and without the aircover they need to give them confidence.

Try this — Be in tune with your teams and ensure all staff members have a channel for fairly voicing their opinions about roles, procedures, and operations. If there are issues, it’s your job to address them and resolve them.

5. Taking credit that isn’t theirs. Leaders who ask their team to deliver work and then represent it as their own, or don’t allow their team members the opportunity to be part of presenting it can severely undermine the trust and willingness to help. Employees felt like they were being used to make their leaders look good which bred resentment when/if those leaders were praised. It was even worse when they heard about the praise second hand and that their name wasn’t included or recognised as being the source of the work.

Try this — If there is the possibility of letting someone present their own work or letting them attend the meeting where it is being presented, use it as an opportunity to introduce them and give them credit. It is a great development opportunity for them and helps them gain exposure. At the same time, it marks you out as a leader who builds highly effective teams.

6. Rushing to the ground floor to “help”. Imagine your team like a watch tower. The employees are on the ground floor operating and delivering. You are a few floors up — standing in the same place but with a greater view and perspective. Your role is to spot things on the horizon and warn/solve them so your team can keep doing their best work. That’s what they expect of you. If you keep rushing downstairs to “help” when things get tough, it tells your employees that you don’t trust them and in many cases, employees said that their leaders weren’t actually any help at all. So whilst you might feel like you are helping, and you may survive today, you are choosing not to solve the bigger problems that only you can solve

Try this — Stay on your level. As soon as you sacrifice your vantage point, you lose perspective and become another doer versus being the leader you were employed to be. Refer back to the purpose of your role, and focus there. Normally this involves leading, influencing, and prioritizing.

These were the top 6 ways that employees felt exploited and most are relatively simple to fix. Did you recognize any happening to you? Or that you might be doing some to your team? If so, now is the opportunity to change things.

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Jimmy Burroughes

Showing leaders and teams how to change their conversations to change their business performance results. jimmyburroughes.com