There is that moment in the life of many employees when they realise that their job description has…expanded. It started as small favours, and things that just needed to be done, and emergencies. But then one day it became routine, expected, and you could be shouted at for letting it slide.

And you ask yourself “How, how, did this happen?”

The trouble, you see, is that there was a time when you were doing a favour. And favours carry the promise of a reciprocal favour. But if you don’t collect, and you continue to do the work, then you are basically doing it for free.

And free stuff makes people go crazy.

Consider Facebook

Most of us check Facebook every day. Some of us every hour. We use it to stay in touch with distant friends. We share stuff that we find interesting. We post status updates about the things that annoy us, and then feel vindicated because we just slammed someone in public.

Facebook is there for bragging. And hating. And stalking. It’s the ultimate occupation of dead time. It’s also there for romance: how many of us test the waters of interest with a friend request?

In short: Facebook has become as natural as owning a cellphone. You just do it.

So, rationally, you might think that Facebook could say to itself:

“Look at all this great service we provide! For years now, we’ve demonstrated that we add value to people’s lives. People come play in our ecosystem every day. Hell – most of them visit us every few minutes! Surely people would pay an annual subscription of 99 cents for this incredible service? It’s barely the price of an ice-cream. A single ice-cream! Once a year!”

But Facebook will never do this: because that would be corporate suicide. We would flee in droves. For 99 cents. Because how dare they.

And actually, more importantly, Whatsapp

Every year, I save many many dollars in airtime by not smsing. Would you like to check how much you’ve saved? Go into your Whatsapp settings, then look at your Whatsapp account. Have a look at the number of messages sent.

I am not a huge messaging person (I prefer phonecalls), but as of this morning, I have sent 70,081 messages on Whatsapp. Had I messaged on my Vodacom contract, assuming that all of my messages were sent to other South African mobile numbers (they were not), that’s a saving of R35,000 (R0.50 per sms).

And if you considered that at least half of my messages went to international numbers (I’m a third culture kid, after all), then that’s a saving of R78,491*!!
*International smses cost R1.74 a pop.

Perhaps I would have messaged less if it wasn’t free. But I would still have sent some messages, so I’ve definitely saved money overall.

And yet, despite the clear evidence of significant savings, I regularly get whatsapp chain messages telling me to watch out because Whatsapp wants to charge a 99 cent annual subscription. Because, again, how dare they.

And the trouble is, if Whatsapp did try and charge an annual subscription fee, users would just stop. In protest. As though they’re somehow entitled to this free service.

The Universe Giveth On One Hand…

None of us is bigger than Whatsapp or Facebook. We all face the same psychological reaction toward the craziness of “free”.

So when we offer a service without asking for payment in return (and I’m not only talking in terms of monetary value), then we place ourselves in a difficult position. And in an employment environment, once you’ve established the baseline of what you’re prepared to do for your salary each month, it’s awkward to turn around and say “Hey guys! Pay me more for what I’m doing.”

For most people, the easiest thing to do is move jobs and hope that they don’t repeat the pattern.

Unfortunately, the problem is more systemic than that. It’s the difficulty of finding the dividing line between “favour” and “expectation”, which requires a bit of forethought.

Here are two possible forethoughts:

  1. When you do a favour, make sure that you ask for a favour in return. Does this seem mean-spirited? Consider this: studies have shown that the best way to form a friendship is to get them to do you a favour. Because we think: “I only do favours for people I like, so if I did him a favour, then I must like him”. It’s called the Benjamin Franklin effect. And/or the resolution of cognitive dissonance.
  2. Have a time limit, then have a conversation. If you’re being asked to work on projects that are “outside the scope”, then it is not grasping or uncouth to request a meeting where you acknowledge the fact that your scope is now extended. As you start your second project, you need to take a moment and call a meeting. Something along the lines of “I’m so happy to be doing this, but I’m uncomfortable leaving this as a tacit agreement. Can we just clarify now what the process will be going forward? Perhaps we can agree to sit down in 3 month’s time to review the progress, and if this has become a regular part of my work here, then I’d like that to be reflected in my package and possibly my title.” What’s important is that everyone is kept aware that your work deserves compensation.

At the same time, don’t forget that there are other good reasons to go beyond the scope. It can give you promotional preference, and first dibs on popular vacation periods (like that string of public holidays in April). As long as you know why you’re working harder.

I guess my point is: jobs are just economic transactions, even if employees generally bargain from a position of less power. That’s not a problem – it’s just a factor to be managed. But if you throw your hands up and hope that you don’t have to bargain, and that your employer will be munificent and recognise your worth without you having to bargain, then you’re going to get screwed.

And once you’re screwed…

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at