A few months ago, the Writers Guild of America strike began. As 10,000 screenwriters took to the streets to demand fair pay, David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, appeared unfazed.
Expressing hope for a quick resolution, he said he already knew what would end the strike: “a love for working.” “We all came into this business because we love storytelling,” Zaslav told CNBC. “That’s what’s going to bring us together.” For screenwriters and others who do what they love, he seemed to be suggesting, shouldn’t work be its own reward?
Our culture romanticizes the notion of doing what you love. Self-help books and commencement speeches reverberate with exhortations to “follow your passion.” Conventional wisdom holds that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. But a growing body of research reveals that employees who are passionate about their work are susceptible to being exploited — subjected to low wages, long hours, and poor working conditions.
A series of five studies published recently in Organization Science found that when organizations frame work around making the world a better place, job candidates accept lower wages — not because they’re OK with trading higher pay for meaningful work, but because they’re afraid to sound like they don’t value socially impactful work for its own sake.
What’s more, the glorification of passion may perpetuate gender disparities in earnings. One study found that when women adhere to the “follow your passion” ideology, they veer away from high-wage sectors such as computer science, engineering, and physics. Instead, they gravitate toward lower-paid professions like nursing, teaching, and social work — inadvertently reinforcing existing gender pay gaps.
Most troubling is the finding that people generally view it as acceptable for managers to make passionate employees do unpaid work, sacrifice sleep, work on a weekend, and perform demeaning tasks unrelated to their job, such as cleaning the office bathroom.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. Getting passionate workers to do more work for less pay may seem like a win for organizations, but it could backfire in higher burnout and turnover. Just because someone loves being a graphic designer doesn’t mean they want to miss their kid’s softball game.
The price of passion
All this unfolds against a backdrop of escalating worker exploitation across industries. Since the 1970s, worker compensation has remained stagnant — even as employees are increasingly expected to take on unpaid internships, work longer hours, or contribute their creative gifts for free in exchange for “exposure.”
Meanwhile, passion itself is being commodified, packaged as yet another mandatory employee qualification — like in “Office Space,” when Jennifer Aniston’s character is prodded to “express herself” by adorning her uniform with more than just the minimum number of “pieces of flair.” In real life, the trend is evident in the culture of “enforced happiness” prevalent at businesses such as sandwich chain Pret A Manger, where employees are expected to display genuine smiles and emanate “the authenticity of being happy.” Employee passion, it appears, has been co-opted as a mechanism for corporate profit.
Passion exploitation stems partly from differing perceptions between employers and employees. While employees see their passion for work as a pathway to reaching their full potential, research shows employers view it as a means to achieve work outcomes.
At the core of the problem is “compensatory justification” — a psychological mechanism in which the brain attempts to explain away perceived injustice. “We want to see the world as fair and just,” explains psychologist Aaron Kay, one of the study’s authors. “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.” The study found employers justify exploitation by unconsciously convincing themselves that for passionate employees, doing extra work is a reward in itself.
None of this implies that employees shouldn’t be passionate about their work. But it does mean that passionate workers need to be more vigilant, taking active steps to shield themselves from unfair treatment. Here’s how.
Establish clear boundaries
High-performing employees often find themselves doing more than their share of work — a phenomenon known as performance punishment — as managers come to lean on their abilities to handle demanding tasks and bail them out of minor work emergencies. Passionate employees can be just as vulnerable.
The remedy: Have a conversation with your manager to clearly demarcate your work hours, job responsibilities, and what constitutes extra work. Preserve a healthy work-life balance by maintaining hobbies and interests outside of work. When your job becomes your only channel for engaging with your passion, you risk falling into a cycle not just of exploitation but also self-imposed overwork.
Negotiate fair compensation
In their enthusiasm for work, passionate employees may underestimate their worth. To guard against passion exploitation, understand your market value and be prepared to negotiate for fair compensation. With several states, such as California, Maryland, and Rhode Island, now requiring companies to disclose salary ranges, you can get a better sense of what you should be paid. And if you’re asked to take on additional work, insist on being compensated appropriately. Passion should never be an excuse to justify unpaid labor.
Regularly assess your work situation to detect early signs of exploitation. Are you consistently working overtime without compensation? Is your workload becoming unmanageable? If so, it may be time to initiate a dialogue with your manager to revisit expectations. Being self-aware and taking initiative can be your best defense against exploitation.
It’s also important to speak up if you notice instances of passion exploitation. Advocate for clearly defined job roles and respect for personal days and off-work hours to unplug, recharge, and rejuvenate.
By respecting employee boundaries, providing fair compensation, and promoting a healthy work-life balance, organizations can lay the foundation for a workforce that’s loyal, innovative, and productive. Passion can certainly enhance job satisfaction. But it should never be used as a smokescreen for unfair practices.