Exploitation at Work: 7 Signs and Solutions

exploitation at work
Kabir L.
Kabir L.
Community Manager

It is hard to know when you are taken advantage of at work. Exploitation comes in many forms, and it's hard to tell genuine exploitation from ignorance. Management is often so removed from their employees' day-to-activities that the latter can feel exploited. In such scenarios, awareness, boundary setting, and communication are vital to ensure a healthy work environment.

This article will go over the signs of being taken advantage of at work. We will also cover internal and external solutions to exploitation, boundary setting, and communication tips.

Signs of Being Taken Advantage of at Work

1. You go the extra mile but don’t receive any recognition

If you regularly go the extra mile but are not acknowledged, then it's possible that you are being taken advantage of at work. However, there could be other factors at play.

Do other employees go the extra mile? What happens when they do? Does management acknowledge their efforts?

2. You spend most of your time doing other people’s work

Source: Paychex

Delegating to peers is an effective strategy to get ahead in the workplace. However, that delegation must go both ways. If your coworkers dump their tedious work on you but refuse to help you with your work, then you are likely being taken advantage of at work.

It is also essential to remember that human beings have an implicit bias. We remember each instance that we helped someone else but forget instances where someone else helped us. Therefore, that proportion always remains skewed towards us in our minds.

3. You do not get compensated according to your skill level or industry standard

Figure out what your role at work is worth by looking into the average salaries for people in your role. Job posting sites such as Glassdoor, Salary.com, Payscale, LinkedIn, Monster, and Indeed can assist you in finding these numbers. 

Additionally, look into the average qualifications and experience level for that role. Also, account for your location and job title. If you are severely underpaid compared to these numbers, then you are likely being exploited at work.

4. You’re not allowed to take breaks or time off

Depending on your job, if you have asked for time off but got denied repeatedly without being given a reason, then it's possible that you are being exploited at work. Additionally, if you are not fairly compensated for extra time at work, that is another red flag.

5. You get critiqued excessively even when you do a good job

Feedback is vital for every employee. A manager needs to let employees know when they are doing a good job and point out areas where they can improve. However, if you get unconstructive criticism or your work is nitpicked even when you have achieved the required goals, you likely have a bad manager. 

6. You get micromanaged excessively

Bad management sometimes manifests in the form of micromanagement. Micromanagement means that your boss or manager does not trust you to do your job well. Couple that with being under-compensated, and it's possible that you are being taken advantage of at work.

7. You don’t feel like you can say no to extra work assigned to you

Many people feel like they need to say yes to every piece of work they get, but that is not true. You can set boundaries with your manager. However, if you struggle with setting boundaries, then it's likely that people will keep giving you work that you cannot keep up with. As a result, you will become overwhelmed and feel like you are being taken advantage of.

8. You experience discrimination at the workplace

If you face discrimination or marginalization based on your race, ethnicity, gender, or income, then you are being exploited at work. The priority is to make a plan to transition to a safer environment as soon as possible.

What Do You Do When You Feel Taken Advantage of at Work?

According to a survey of 994 US employees conducted by Paychex, 77% of employees feel they are taken advantage of at work. The nature of corporations is to get as much work out of a salaried employee as possible. It is in their economic best interest. While it can come across as exploitative, most of the time, it isn’t. It is in their economic best interest. 

Most employees have a list of tasks to do that far exceeds their capacity. However, prioritization is critical since there are only so many hours a day and a week. Every employee drops the ball on specific tasks, and that's ok. Even if employers expect them to do everything, nobody can do that. Therefore, it is more critical NOT to drop the ball on high-value tasks. The more of these you accomplish, the more you will be rewarded.

Most managers don't care if you don’t do the low-value work. There is always work that can be done, but you need to understand the company values and goals to accomplish tasks that directly align with them.

At the same time, sometimes managers expect you to do everything you are assigned. In such cases, it's best to understand the manager’s style and adapt accordingly. Here are some of the most common styles of bosses. Use this along with the communication guide below to get on the same page as your manager.

Boss Type Traits Favourite Quote Communication Strategy 
Tyrant   Seeks control.  "Did you do what I told you to do?"  Approach privately, don't contradict them in public.
Career Climber  Ambitious. Concerned about own image.  "How does this reflect on me?"  Understand their goals. Support them or avoid embarrassing them. 
Company Man  Wishes to avoid criticism from above.  "Will my boss/the company be happy?"  Align your work with corporate/group goals. 
Burnout/Lifer  Minimize hassle, collect pay, go home. Value peace above fairness.  "Who is causing me a hassle now?"  Pitch assurances of safe ideas. 
Old Timer  Values safety of the proven past. Operates on inertia and fear.  "This is how we've always done it."  Present ideas as small, safe, and as tiny deviances of current systems. 
Expert  Made a manager because of craft excellence, not management skill.  "Is this work at my standards?"  Ask for their expert opinion and help. Be meticulous in your work. 
Micromanager  Value adherence to instructions.  "Did you do it exactly as I told you?"  Invite oversight and give frequent updates. 
Frazzled  Cannot say no. No balance.  "I'm so busy, I have no time for this." Set boundaries, offer help, bother them rarely. 
Invisible Hand  Remote. Delegates the day to day. Trusts employees.   "Call me if you need me." Hand problems you can, call them quickly if there are issues. 
Servant Leader  Values team players. Struggle with disruptive or selfish employees.  "How can I help you succeed?"  Work towards team goals. 
Retail Manager  Disempowered. Common in fast food, mall stores, etc.  "That's what HQ said; I can't change it."  Adhere to the letter of the rules. 
Owner Deep emotional ties. Threats to business are threats to them. "My name is on the building." Treat their business as personal property.

If you have trouble standing up for yourself, start with the following questions:

  • In what way do you have difficulty standing up for yourself?
  • What is the feedback system at work? Are people open to feedback?
  • What are power dynamics at the workplace?
  • What are the systems in place to advocate for yourself?

If you feel exploited at work, there are two paths. One of them is the internal path, and the other is the external path.

The internal path points towards introspection and understanding why it is difficult for you to advocate for yourself. Do you feel that nobody will listen to you? Do you feel that you get treated appropriately? There could be several underlying reasons which make it difficult to give a general solution. Therefore, ask yourself these questions to begin an internal exploration into why you get easily exploited at work.

Internal Path

Ego

The first step is to explore the ego. The ego refers to the “I” feeling or sense of identity. Although arrogance can arise from ego, it does not only refer to arrogance.

If it is hard to stand up for yourself at work, ask yourself: What will change? Will you not come across as a team player? Is that acceptable to you?

Human beings tend to want to control other people’s perceptions of us. However, that gets in the way of doing what we value and what is essential. As you start to explore your ego, you will realize that the consequences are in your mind. That does not mean that they are not real. They can happen. However, you will not know until you try, which means you are limiting your actions based on your perception of consequences, not the actual consequences themselves.

Low Self-Worth

Inability to stand up for yourself could arise from low-self worth. You may feel you do not deserve to do more valuable tasks at work, even though you want to do them. The human mind does not appreciate conflict and tension. It wants binary conclusions. 

Conflict Avoidance

Often, people don’t bring up important issues because they want to maintain peace in their environment. They would rather stay in an unsuitable environment than disrupt the order of things and potentially make it better or worse.

If you resonate with this, then assess your ability to disagree. How often do you feel comfortable saying no at work? Do you push back on specific ideas? Do you point out flaws in strategy or planning when you see them? Moreover, how do you handle conflicts in your relationships outside work? If the issue is internal, the same problems that affect our work affect our personal lives. Therefore, if conflict avoidance is an issue for you in various parts of life, then you can benefit from internal exploration and emotional processing.

External Path

Sometimes, our struggles are born out of external circumstances than internal emotional drivers.

Power Dynamics

Workplace exploitation is often the result of power dynamics. Therefore, it is essential to understand these power dynamics and how to work around them. Ask and answer the following questions to gain insight into how you can overcome being taken advantage of at the workplace.

  • What is the power dynamic in a situation where you feel taken advantage of?
  • If you were to speak up, who would get upset?
  • What could they do if they got upset?
  • How can you mitigate the damage?
  • Who’s in your corner?

The simplest solution is to frame your dissatisfaction or issue in a way aligned with the company's mission or your boss. Use the styles of bosses table above to understand the best communication strategy for your situation. Some communication tips to make the communication more favorable are:

  • Be as direct as possible.
  • Be polite, friendly, and kind.
  • Make a clear ask.
  • Make it easy for people to help you.
  • Pick your battlefield. When is the most optimal time to approach your boss based on their schedule and mood?

Here is an example:

Suppose a situation in which you were underpaid for doing extra work for several months. You have consulted other people at work, and they were compensated fairly for overtime work. In this situation, you could approach your boss at an optimal time and say something like:

“Hey, I know you’ve been looking out for me and I did not want to come across as very complainy. At the same time, there is something at work that I wanted to get your thoughts about. I feel like I have not been compensated appropriately for the overtime I have worked. I would like to receive fair compensation and was hoping to have a conversation with you regarding that. What do you think about that?”

Boundary setting in the workplace

Suppose you have been taking on more and more work. That is an excellent strategy to advance in the workplace. Managers value proactive employees and go the extra mile to achieve results. Additionally, people don’t mind doing more, but not without some recognition or acknowledgment of their boundaries. However, sometimes managers don't understand what their employees do on a day-to-day basis, leading to the employee’s efforts going unacknowledged.

If you feel you keep getting extra work, ask yourself what you're trying to avoid by taking it on? What are you getting by letting your boundaries be violated?

Basics of Good Communication

In a workplace, communication is how people see you. It is especially true with remote work. If you can’t articulate what you thought, what you read, what you saw, and what problems you ran into, you may be working hard and remain invisible. Communication is vital for getting the job done, getting appropriate recognition, and setting appropriate boundaries.

Clarity

  • People at work are busy, so long messages are often ignored.
  • Think about what you intend to communicate.
  • Think about the context of the recipient.
  • Write or speak with precision. Use numbers and facts rather than words such as “about” or ‘sort of”.
  • Practice tweet-length summaries.

Professional

  • Negative emotion rarely helps in business, so avoid ranting.
  • Avoid slang.
  • Write with the best punctuation and grammar you can.
  • Be organized.
  • Write an outline first. Introduce a topic, give information, summarize.
  • Communication can be judged more on tone than on content.

Anticipate Questions and Provide Alternatives

  • Avoid requiring the manager or other recipients from needing to ask obvious questions. Anticipate them and include answers.
  • Provide options and a recommendation. Do not make your audience guess.
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