July 8, 2019

Research shows why employers lowball freelancers and creatives

Through eight different studies with over 2,400 participants, researchers discovered that people find it more acceptable for managers to ask passionate workers to work extra hours without additional pay, sacrifice sleep and family time, and take on demeaning tasks outside of their job descriptions. Nastia Voynovskaya breaks down why this short-changing disproportionately affects creative workers.

The findings

In her article for KQED, Nastia Voynovskaya sheds light on the research supporting employers’ tendency to lowball creative workers  For one, Duke Ph.D. graduate Jae Yun Kim and Professor Aaron Kay, University of Oregon Professor Troy Campbell and Oklahoma State University Professor Steven Shepherd studied the ways that workers’ passion is increasingly being used as a justification for their exploitation in today’s labor market. Their findings include:

  • Unreasonable requests seemed more appropriate in professions associated with passion such as artists, animal trainers, social workers and ecologists (versus other jobs like bill collectors and store clerks)
  • When reading reports about grad student subjected to unreasonable deadlines and verbal abuse, participants rated him as more passionate than those who weren’t mistreated
  • The tendency to exploit came from two key beliefs: that work is its own reward, and that the employee would have volunteered regardless. Both beliefs are called compensatory justifications.

“We want to see the world as fair and just,” Kay said. “When we are confronted with injustice, rather than fix it, sometimes our minds tend to compensate instead. We rationalize the situation in a way that seems fair, and assume the victims of injustice must benefit in some other way.”

Creatives should put on a poker face

Knowing that the pervading industry and culture favors—or at least tacitly justifies—the exploitation of passionate workers, what solutions do we have as freelancers?

  • Deciding if a job will actually give us any of the following in an acceptable measure in relative proportion to the commitment: money, perks, enjoyment, experience, portfolio, networking
  • Containing our immediate enthusiasm for a particular job until we establish the objective parameters of the work (timeline and compensation) or better yet, until we seal the deal
  • Until the necessary cultural shift happens—that is, the one where employers and anyone who needs creative services done become aware of this dynamic—we can change the narrative by educating clients and fellow creatives alike to build awareness
  • Leaving the free market to enter the world of grants from foundations that support the arts
  • Redirecting our passion back towards our portfolios, creating the work we want to be known for and that honors our abilities the best and that could very well be the best work we create
  • Arming ourselves with a strategy that positions us towards fair compensation from our deals and prevents us from taking purely exploitative ones

Regaining Control

While creatives are currently relatively held lower on the pecking order, it’s important for industries’ to understand their broader impact. Their ability to create value is something that cannot be dismissed.  However, the unfortunate reality is that they will need to take care of themselves first and foremost. Until creatives take the responsibility and initiative to develop deals that ensure their well-being as well as allowing for the best work to be done (within the parameters), they’ll continue to be at the whim of others.

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