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Free Labor Boundaries
A few weeks ago, I started a part-time internship. The work is remote and unpaid, and my supervisor and I are working across time zones. My supervisor does not provide clear deadlines. They assume I will complete every task as soon as possible. I have found myself working for much longer than I agreed to, and I work late at night to navigate the time difference. Our manager recently told us he was dissatisfied with our current progress.
How do I draw clear boundaries? Am I expected to always be available and “online” since we do not have synchronous working times? My supervisor and I have a very new working relationship and rarely have face-to-face meetings, so I am nervous about raising concerns because I do not want to come across as disrespectful or ungrateful. The unpaid internship is really meaningful, and I want to respect my commitment and my supervisor’s time and energy.
Unpaid internships are unconscionable. It is exploitative and there is no excuse for it in this day and age. That is moot given that this is your job and you’ve agreed to these conditions, but it needs to be said. I am glad the work you’re doing is meaningful so you’re getting something out of this experience, but your manager is making unreasonable demands. Paid or not, this is a professional position. You have every right to establish boundaries. You do not need to be always available or work unreasonable hours. Certainly, a job will sometimes demand more of your time than the 12 or 20 or 40 hours of work expected of you each week. Most people are happy to occasionally put in extra time to get the job done if they aren’t being exploited. It’s called “work” for a reason. But there is a difference between work and indentured servitude, which is what is currently being asked of you.
Decide what your boundaries are and write a polite but firm email to your manager articulating those boundaries. I would point out the time zone issue and also ask for them to provide clear expectations for the time frame within which you should complete your work. It is bad management to assign tasks without expectations and then criticize you for not being a mind reader. Finally, it is not disrespectful or ungrateful to stand up for yourself in the workplace. Your employer is not doing you a favor by giving you a job and they are especially not doing you a favor when they exploit your labor without compensation.
Can Corporations Change?
I took unconscious bias training at work and I learned a lot. The more I thought about it, I realized that corporations in our capitalist society inherently perpetuate biases. Is it possible for a corporate culture to both hold its employees accountable for biases and allow its higher-ups to practice business practices that are biased, like nepotism? I’m wondering what expectations we, as middle and lower management, should have for companies built on biases in the first place.
Listen. Anytime you’re dealing with corporate culture, you have to manage your expectations. Most corporations don’t make meaningful changes about anything unless their bottom line dictates doing so. That said, amid the current social upheaval, we are seeing a lot of companies trying to say and do the right things about confronting inherent bias and creating work environments that are more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Some of these efforts are sincere and some are cynical performances, but it is important to acknowledge progress, however incremental.
It is possible for a corporate culture to hold itself accountable, but it requires active and sustained effort. It requires capital investment and material change. Some of those changes — targeted hiring and promotion, universal pay transparency and pay equity, consequences for bias, anti-bias protocols that force people to change behaviors — will be uncomfortable. Change and reckoning and reparation are uncomfortable. Unfortunately, few companies are willing to let their employees and other stakeholders sit with the discomfort necessary to create change.
What you’re really asking is if it’s worth your time to advocate for change and hold yourself and your direct reports accountable for their biases when your bosses probably aren’t going to do that same work. The answer is also yes. In an ideal world, your company’s executives will examine and confront their inherent biases and make the necessary adjustments so they are making the most equitable hiring, salary, promotion and other business decisions. But if they don’t do that work, your complacency won’t do anything but deepen inequities. As a middle manager you do have some power. You can and should lead by example.
Mandatory Fun Is Never Fun
At the start of work-from-home, my manager suggested we do a virtual check-in with our team of four. The check-ins rarely have to do with work and have morphed into daily social chats for about an hour a day. Sometimes they are fine, and I admit they have been nice during this isolated time. But the mandatory nature is unnecessary and draining. Now that working from home seems the new normal, I’m wondering if there is a way to carefully cut down on these calls without jeopardizing my job.
I completely understand where you’re coming from and hear your weariness. Your feelings are not unreasonable. That said, there are real challenges to remote work. I have no doubt that your manager has the best of intentions in trying to replicate the social connections that have been lost now that your team is working from home. But an hour a day of social conversation with co-workers, after a full workday, is a lot. Frankly, it sounds a little excruciating. Mandatory fun is never fun.
It would be reasonable for you to suggest that these check-ins take place maybe twice a week instead of every day. You might also suggest a clearer agenda for the check-ins to keep the conversations mostly work-related (there’s nothing wrong with some personal conversation). Creating a Slack channel, if you don’t already have one, could also be a workable option. With Slack, your team can check in and converse throughout the workday. If you broach this tactfully, I think your manager will respond with an open mind and you can be relieved of at least some of the burden of these daily chats. I wish you the best of luck!