Monday, March 06, 2023

On Employee Overhead

 One of my first jobs out of college was working at my cousin's convenience store.

I launched out of college with a degree fresh in hand - and no idea what I was going to do with said degree (this was not a thing my college excelled at, preparing its students for the real world).  My father, out of the kindness of his heart (and likely not wanting me aimlessly wandering around the house), suggested that I talk to my cousin about a job.

Working at a convenience store was, as full time jobs go, not terrible. Yes, I am not a fan of working with the public, but my math skills got much better (I could make change like a boss) and my job of stocking the cooler at the end of the shift was actually something I came to look forward to.  I would put my sweatshirt on, put on my Sony Walkman and headphones, and start loading beer onto the shelves as I listened to Essential Latin.  "Tempus fugit" (Time Flies) I would mutter to the Keystone and Old Milwaukee 12-packs as I put them on the shelves.

At one point I asked my cousin why he was always there.  "Money"  he replied.  "The easiest way for me to make money on this place is for me to work instead of paying an employee.  Employees are overhead and expensive; I am not overhead and much cheaper."  I nodded my head, the way the oblivious always do, and pulled down the pack of Marlboros for the next regular customer walking up to the counter.


I have never been a Twitter user.

I tried Twitter once many years ago when I was going to be a famous blogger who would only be doing this long enough until the contract came in and I was on The New York Times Best Sellers' list, but I did not find Twitter that useful (nor, might I add, did the offers for greatness come pouring in).  As a result, I killed the account.  Since then I have almost never checked it except as someone else has provided a recommended link.  It strikes me as useful for sharing certain kinds of information, but reading about the "Twitter Wars" is enough to push anyone like myself that shudders at uncomfortable situations back into just writing.

I have, however, been following the company itself with some interest since its acquisition by Elon Musk - not from the political and ideological accusations point of view (which - as per usual - is not what we discuss here) but simply from the business model point of view.  The company was losing money and appeared that Musk had overpaid for it.  These sorts of things are always interesting to me:  can the ship be righted to a profitable company.

It was thus with interest that in the course of reading a recent article about additional layoffs at Twitter, the rather astounding figure was trotted out that approximately 75% of individuals employed at Twitter when Musk took over - a mere four months ago - are no longer with the company either through layoffs, termination, or choosing to self-separate.  The most recent layoffs (200 individuals, link here) leaves the company with about 2,000 employees out of an estimated 7500 prior to the layoff (not including contractors, of course). 

The InterWeb is full of the various commentaries by the incoming Musk and his staff about what they actually found - not in terms of political or social related items, but just in terms of productivity and overhead expenses.  Certainly my parents would never have recognized the sort of workday and perks that seem to have been an expected part of the job; I barely do.  It is unfair to say that everyone worked that way or did not work hard; it is fair to say that those are all overhead expenses which are at best something that costs money and should be justified by increasing revenues, not decreasing ones.

The jury is still out on if Musk will be successful, but one cannot help but imagine that cutting that much overhead cannot help but to somehow improve the bottom line.  I will watch with interest.


The question of adding value should always be in the mind of an employee:  Am I adding value?  Am I making myself invaluable?

I recognize that in our age of "Me-Centrism", this is often a question not considered.  The thought process - at least the thought process as I see it demonstrated in the commentary and writings of others, often a generation or three behind me - can be that employees deserve a certain level of service (for lack of a better word) for them to give their best efforts to the company.  The relationship is about myself - the employee - and how I am served and improved, not the employer.

This is by no means to say that employers are either always right or always good.  They are not: there are companies that miserably drive their employees or create incredibly unhealthy work situations and justify it by "perks".  I have worked in both situations and they are as miserable as the sound; all the coffee and doughnuts on Fridays will not make up for an environment that grates on and destroys the personality and spirit.

But neither is this to excuse employees showing up with an attitude of "If all this is what I deem to be sufficient, I will work at capacity - or really at all".

In times of great economic uncertainty - and I suspect no thinking person can argue that we are not in such times currently - companies will scrutinize every expense. That scrutiny will extend the employees that provide the labor and the costs associated with them.  And it is a far easier conversation to have when one's boss can say "This is everything this person provides and how they are providing value to the company" rather than the conversation of "This person...I think they do this?"

Employment - like health, sunny weather, and good coffee - should never be taken for granted.


  1. Anonymous4:11 AM

    That last sentence is 100% true. Never take for granted that the employee is irreplaceable. And the ones that are often discover that they can make more $$ if they change jobs. It is why many employers are hesitant on training them up so much. The employee moves on, along with their training.

    1. Completely agreed. This is one of the things I used to look for at CVs when I was a hiring manager: How long do they typically stay at a position? People that jump around a lot are higher risk, and given my business which has many technical assets, one can effectively lose tens of thousands of dollars in training investment.

  2. Nylon125:01 AM

    Agree about colleges/universities, how many do prepare their students for the real world? How many teach the process of how to think/analyze/learn? How many employees give a full day's effort for a full day's pay?

    1. Nylon12 - Even as late as the time I was in college (and that was years ago - we still had to do our research in physical books and periodicals), the value proposition of liberal arts was that it taught one how to critically think. My impression is that college now teaches people what to think - maybe a wrong one based on the examples that make themselves most vocal, but it represents at least part of the current milieu.

      Work Ethic? What a great question. Once upon a time it either came by example or practice at home or from one's formative job experience - certainly not something that is taught in school now.

  3. While I was in high school, there was a basketball game before school after the buses started dropping off students and before the first bell.

    Kids showed up. Teams were picked. Games were played.

    Whichever team you ended up on, you wanted your team to win. It did not matter if your two best friends were on the other team. You had a win.

    The game was not about showboating or looking good or getting accolades. It was about winning. It was about performance. It was about achieving the mission: Winning.

    Winning is good!

    That message has been been flipped up-side down.

    It is assumed that winners cheated and "owe" the non-winners the trophy.

    The talented stop trying. The non-winners clamor ever more loudly for what they "deserve".

    1. ERJ, agreed. Interestingly, this is still something that seems to be true in aspects of high school such as sports, band, and choir (the latter two I know a little more about) - yet somehow, to your point, it is left behind by the time one gets to real world.

      It often feels to me as if winners in anything else other than sports - those that succeed or have victory - have somehow gamed the system and by gaming, owe something to everyone else. Success - especially at the individual level - is no longer as valued as "team" success. The reality is that while teams can be represent real value and have the ability to bring more power to bear on the the task, they can also ensure that those that do not try as hard get swept up along with those that do - in fact, it may be "expected' that is is just part of the "success tax" that is paid for winning.

      "The talented stop trying. The non-winners clamor ever more loudly for what they "deserve" - precisely one of the messages of Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

      "Do not attempt to rise on the looters' terms or to climb a ladder while they're holding the ropes. Do not allow their hands to touch the only power that keeps them in power: your living ambition. Go on strike - in the manner I did. Use your mind and skill in private, extend your knowledge, develop your ability, but do not share your achievements with others. Do not try to produce a fortune with a looter riding on your back. Stayin on the lowest rung of their ladder, earn no more than your barest survival, do not make an extra penny to support the looters' state."

  4. One of the things that always amazed me was how much non-value adding employees have been at every company I have ever worked at. The places were full of people rarely leaving their desks and playing solitaire or idly reading the internet and they always seemed to complain about how long their days were. I on the other hand, actively sought out projects because they kept my mind busy and I was always shocked when the end of the day was already upon me. The bane of my existence was always when my ability to complete a task was linked to one of these sorts of people who would complain for months how hard the task was while deciding if which black jack they want to put the red ten on.

    1. Sorry Ed - for some reason your comment went into moderation. This happens for reasons unknown to me from time to time.

      Part of what you relate is the outcome of an economy where such people can exist. We have gotten away in many senses from the idea of a company or a job as a value producing item; they are now equally doing all other kinds of things - social network, social equalizer, opportunity granter.

      When value becomes paramount again is when these sorts of jobs will disappear because companies can no longer to employ folks that do not work.

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  6. I had an old man tell me to be more than a good employee. He said strive to be irreplaceable. I aimed for that at every job. Got a call from the last one, and the boss said, "I never knew that you did so much until you were gone." Strange how he didn't remember our conversations over the last several years. When he was first brought on, I told him what I did, and how we got to that point, asked him to call our customers and see that I was doing the work of two men, while he paid another for nothing (new concept!!! other guy was a looter!!!). Cold comfort from the boss. But on the inside, I was true to my ethics, and gave the best I could. So, I can hold my head up. My customers missed me!!! That was quite satisfying.

    Pushing forward as a near invalid is extremely frustrating. I am mentally capable of far more than I can DO. And that disparity is maddening. I'm breaking in some new "boots", I guess. And it ain't comfortable. Relearning to how work around this frailty is no fun at all.

    I'm doing the thing you mentioned above: Use your mind and skill in private, extend your knowledge, develop your ability. Luck favors the prepared. So, I'm preparing as best I know how.

    1. STxAR, I have had the same advice. There are many ways to be invaluable - customer service, keeper of ancient knowledge, maintainer of ancient systems - the task, as you so correctly note, is to make sure it is visible enough so that others realize it.

      Sometimes all we can do is prepare in silence and wait for the opportunity to appear. It always will.


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