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Photo by Guilherme Cunha.

This column is the first in a four-part series that explores how money, for better or worse, can often complicate what should otherwise be straightforward relationships between people.

Like everyone who needed a little extra cash while still in school, I once held a part-time job. It was in F&B, and it taught me things that 6 years on, I haven’t forgotten.

Back then, after the shutters went down every night and the last plate had been wiped and shelved, the alcohol would emerge. This happened without fail, and if we part-timers weren’t drinking at the restaurant, we’d do it at a bar nearby either before or after supper.

We weren’t making a lot of money, but it wasn’t a problem because our boss always paid for everything—a gesture we gratefully accepted and came to see as acknowledgement of everyone’s hard work.

Anyone who’s ever worked in F&B (or any small business, really) will know that a lot of this counts for routine team bonding activity. After all, it’s often the camaraderie and blind passion that gets us through each day, and beer that gets us to the next.

And when employers are seemingly generous, picking up the tab for lunch or buying rounds of drinks after work, it can become an incentive do things beyond one’s job scope; to work longer hours, even when they’re not being paid to.

In my case, we also learned very quickly that sometimes, such gestures aren’t simply about appreciation. Instead, they can be a way to manipulate and motivate employees to do more for less.

All it took for us to learn this hard truth was for someone to ask for a raise.

We were told that we would never get the same opportunities elsewhere.

I was idealistic and inexperienced at the time, but also willing to work. In contrast, my boss was charismatic, knowledgeable and talented.

A lot of the other part-timers were just like me. Mostly university students, we had flexible schedules. On top of this, we believed in the restaurant and what it was trying to do. We also came to see our boss as more of a friend and fellow colleague rather than an employer.

The result was that we did almost anything for the place.

We skipped classes to pull extra shifts so the restaurant was always adequately staffed. Or we would pop in voluntarily on weekends to cover someone who was sick. It wasn’t always fun, but the restaurant was new, we liked our regulars, and we loved working with each other.

Eventually though, people started burning out. A couple of others began to realise how broke all the late night cab rides and suppers were making them. And while our boss was taking us out for drinks 2 to 3 times a week, he only showed up during around the evening, and so was nowhere near as exhausted as the rest of us.

It was during this period that a casual observation transformed very quickly from a joke into resentment.

Someone commented on the boss’s new car, and someone else wondered aloud about whether we’d ever be paid more than $8 an hour. Then someone asked why he would keep taking us out for drinks but not increase our salary.

Finally, someone volunteered as tribute. She would ask on our behalf.

What followed wasn’t pretty.

First, she was told by our boss to justify why she thought she deserved a raise. Caught off-guard by his tone, she described how everyone consistently did more than they were asked to, how we dropped by even on our off-days to help out. She reminded him that part-timers were 90% of the restaurant.

In response, we were told that we would never get the same opportunities elsewhere, and that there wasn’t any other place people like us would want to or be able to work at.

The conversation then moved to talk of expansion plans and career options that would be available to everyone.

“You guys need to just hang in there.”

We should always do better than we’re expected to, and employers should resist the temptation to take advantage of this.

This is what many employers intuitively know (or learn): if you’re lucky enough to get your employees while they’re young and not yet cynical, they can be exploited.

They can be led on, distracted, and pacified with promises and the occasional ‘staff benefit’, all as part of a long game that favours the company’s bottom line. In our case, it was alcohol and the fun atmosphere it created that kept us wanting to go above and beyond. For others, it could be the promise of exposure or future prospects.

But here’s the thing.

At its heart, work is purely transactional. An employee is not obliged to give their best, only to do what they’re paid to do. In turn, an employer doesn’t owe an employee anymore than the agreed upon compensation.

Arguably, most businesses get by (and even do well) on this perfectly reasonable premise.

Yet we also know that this isn’t what makes work meaningful or enjoyable. It also isn’t the kind of attitude that builds deep relationships or exceptional companies.

While we should always take initiative and do better than we’re expected to, employers should resist the temptation to take advantage of this.

Because there will come a time when employees will realise that ‘staff benefits’ cost less than actual salary increments, or that none of these promises have been kept. They will then either leave or talk shit behind your back. In many cases, they do both.

I know this because it’s exactly what happened to that boss of ours.

The restaurant we all worked at has since expanded, but last we heard, that guy who once employed us has become pretty lonely.

None of the current part-timers ever hang out with him, though he did recently buy a new car.

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