Rambling Man: Help! My Employer Won’t Let Me Express Myself

hamilton writing

This question was sent to Ester as a WWYD? but she and Josh, with the LW’s consent, agreed to tackle it as a team. 

I recently published a piece on a well-trafficked site. The article did well and the response I received was more than I could have hoped. I studied writing in college and have pursued it as a hobby off and on for the past ten years. This experience has reignited my passion, and I’m compelled to write more and get my name out there.

Here’s my problem: I recently started a new position at a company with a very strict outside work policy. Essentially, no employee is allowed to have part-time, weekend or evening work without written permission. Since I was rarely paid for my writing (aside from occasional resume or copy work), I didn’t see a problem when I was hired. Also, my side writing business (as it was) was on my resume and openly discussed in my interviews. I was told that unless I wrote about my industry or company, I would be ok.

Well, I submitted a request to publish my article as soon as I heard from the site’s editor, and my request was rejected. The editing process moved so fast that by the time I received the rejection, my piece had already been finalized and scheduled to be posted the next day. I was told essentially that 1) I was making my request too soon (I’ve been there one month), 2) I should be focusing 100% on work, and 3) they couldn’t risk my taking ANY public position (they didn’t even know the article’s content) and it reflecting poorly on them. I left that night with two options: pull the article or threaten to quit.

I stayed up all night weighing my decision. To give you the full picture, my husband has lymphoma and is currently on chemo, and we also have a toddler. I’m paid twice as much, but we have benefits through his work. My husband wanted me to pull the article, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of going down without a fight.

The next morning, I walked into the Head of Legal’s office. I told him that had I understood the policy, I would have not accepted the job; the article was coming out that afternoon under my full name; and I was willing to resign that morning if necessary. He agreed that I would need to resign, but asked to confer with HR and the CEO. After an hour, he came back and said that they wanted to keep me, so they would offer a one-time waiver on their policy. All future pieces will need to be pre-approved.

So I feel like I won the battle but the war is far from over. I plan to try and publish more, but certainly don’t want to send every pitch and article to my Legal department for approval. I’m not in love with this job (I am already encountering issues with my direct supervisor and systemic company problems, in addition to the writing restrictions), but the pay is a 25% increase and title a big bump for me. There’s a lot of potential, but I fear I will be unhappy day to day. Also, I left my previous job on very good terms, and my former boss has said that my position is there if I ever want to come back. He read my article and supports my writing. So that option remains, though it feels like a step backwards.

Should I quit my job, go back to my old one, find a new one, temp until I figure things out and focus more on my writing, ignore the policy and submit/publish without approval? Am I naive to think I can make this job work considering the issues I already have after one month? Or am I reckless to consider losing this career opportunity on the basis of one moderately successful article?

Josh

Two things come immediately to mind as I consider this letter. The first is that it is appalling how the culture of work in this country has evolved to the point where employers can and do demand that employees fully curtail their private endeavors even in areas unrelated to their employment. The second is that platitudes about the evolution of work culture in this country are absolutely useless for real-world problems involving healthcare, children, and lymphoma.

Ester

Yes, both of those things are true. Employers often feel like they own their employees in alarming ways. In my initial job out of college, for example, we were told during orientation and thereafter that we should not make any commitments in the evenings. Even something like a yoga class was seen as a kind of disloyalty, in that you were not putting the company first. You can only imagine the kind of trouble I got in when I confessed that I had signed up to take graduate school classes at night. Grilled, chided, shamed, and threatened, I withdrew from the program altogether.

I should have left the job, instead. Thanks to irreconcilable differences — I had a kidney infection and had to go to the ER in the middle of the day, and at least one key person in the office found that dereliction of duty unforgivable — I had to leave soon enough anyway.

That said, the author’s situation is quite different. The stakes are much higher and keeping the job seems vastly more important; there are lives on the line here. No, it’s not fair that an office would try to keep an employee from publishing a piece online. That said, the office made its position clear on that from the start. It’s been consistent.

And even if the job itself is not ideal, it confers key benefits, as well as the salary increase and title bump the author wanted. To me, it doesn’t seem like a wise choice to walk away from all that for the chance of publishing more on an overfed and still insatiable Internet.

I would advise the LW to stay put and to continue to write on her own time — judiciously. Pick topics that seem likely not to antagonize her employers and, of her drafts, choose the best to present for approval. Build a reputation in house for being smart and trustworthy, and, as a bonus, build a similar reputation among editors and readers too.

Gradually, then, the rules might ease.

These constraints could also function as an interesting challenge, a way to push oneself to polish and then publish only the very best, most thoughtful pieces. They might keep her, and all of us, from falling into the trap of selling our shameful secrets for a mere fifty bucks a pop.

What do you think, Socialist? Do you disagree with me and believe she should storm out the door on principle?

Josh

I very much appreciate being addressed as “Socialist” with a capital S. Finally, some legitimacy!

As to the relative value of generating content for the internet, I couldn’t agree more. I had in mind to liken the Internet to a baleen whale flushing tons of seawater through its bony maw to get hold of the little shrimps, but then I couldn’t decide if all the earnest-but-ultimately-forgotten content would be the plankton or the water.

Anyway, yes, writing for the Internet seems to pale in comparison to keeping a job that pays well in the face of childrearing and the uncertain future of a partner with a serious ailment.

On the other hand, there is value in writing for an audience and getting feedback on one’s writing from unkind strangers. As with any question that asks how someone should balance an adult responsibility against an avenue to possible fulfillment and happiness, it is hard to say with certainty what the value of each variable is to the person in question. It is easy to say, “Don’t quit your job entirely to spend long hours generating content for the Billfold (or wherever).” [Editor’s note: Surely he means any site OTHER than the Billfold.]

I don’t know that I could say, conclusively, “Don’t take a lower-paying job in exchange for more freedom to pursue the activities that you love.” We don’t know how much less the old job pays, nor how much happier our letter-writer will be if she can see her work chewed up and spit out by the merciless commentariat.

I can tell you this: I played a gig in New Haven this weekend and someone came up to me afterward and said she was a fan of my writing on this site, and it was pretty great. Probably not great enough to get fired over, but not nothing either.

Obviously, the husband’s health and the existence of the child loom large here: she is considering her career not just in the relatively abstract terms of individual prestige and success, but with the real possibility of having to provide for her child with only one income, and to provide for her husband’s care during a protracted and debilitating illness.

The letter writer’s circumstances remind me, to a certain extent, of the change in attitudes that happens when people have children. When people have only themselves to care for, a wide range of life choices can fall within the umbrella of “responsible,” whether it’s living in penury to pursue a career in the theater, working seasonal jobs to pursue a love of travel, or, conversely, getting a straight job, saving for a house, and learning the difference between a snow-thrower and a snow-blower.

But when the struggling actor has a child, if his career choice means that he can provide for that child more modestly than if he were, say, a mid-level manager, we say he is being irresponsible, putting his needs ahead of his child. The fact that the child is well fed and clothed and goes to school everyday seldom matters in the popular conception if the child could be better-fed, better-clothed, and attend a better school.

We could look at the letter-writer’s situation and say, “OF COURSE she should keep the higher-paying job.” I do not think this is an Of Course scenario. I think it’s a probably. Maybe there are different choices her family can make, in terms of where they live, how they spend their money, and the like, that would make the old job feasible even in the worst of circumstances. Maybe the added happiness she would get, both from publishing her work and being at a job with a supportive boss, would give her new stores of patience to care for her toddler and her husband.

As a person who does a lot of public, outside-of-work activities and has an extraordinarily supportive boss, I can say that the sense of basic security I feel about my work is immensely important. Last year I wrote a letter to a writer at The Atlantic, which letter was subsequently published essentially as a stand-alone article (we can’t all be regular contributors to the flagship of reasonable American liberalism, Ester!).

The central thesis of the letter was, I think, unsurprising: judges who come from vastly different backgrounds than the people before them don’t empathize well with those people. Nevertheless, it prompted a very important person in my state’s legal world to contact the head of the agency that employs me and suggest I should be fired.

I do not know the head of the agency as well as I know my boss, so for a few days, I was on tenterhooks. Suddenly, the happy, post-divorce life I’d built over the preceding years seemed in jeopardy and it made my stomach churn. When the head of the agency came through and defended me fully, making it clear that I would never get fired as long as I did my job well, I was struck with a new appreciation for truly stable employment, and, just as importantly, stable employment that gives me room to enjoy the writing, music-playing, and other forms of personal expression that make my post-divorce life feel so full and happy.

Ester

You have made me think about this differently! Who says people on the Internets can’t convince each other of things?

I still believe the LW should stick around for a bit and try to make the current situation work for everyone involved. Ultimately though a controlling employer may be as crushing to the soul as a controlling spouse, and what do more money and a better title matter to one whose soul is crushed? Here, I can even quote the New Testament! “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Speaking of spouses, I hope the LW asks her husband for his opinion. He should get to weigh in, especially if it begins to feel, to either of them, like LW is martyring herself for his sake. Make decisions together about what works best for your family as a whole, LW, taking emotional as well as material and physical well-being into account. And stay well, please, all of you.

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