Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” While he was not writing under circumstances even remotely resembling the events I am about to relate, I almost feel as if I understand a little better today the sentiment he expressed more than 265 years ago.
A week and a half ago, I was offered a job by a governmental agency I’ll call the “Department of Bureaucracy,” or “DOB.” Yesterday, the DOB rescinded their offer. And I’m glad.
A little background is in order:
For twenty-four years, I’ve been an independent contractor. Some of my clients have been with me for this entire stretch. During the pandemic, work slowed down. I applied for and got some of the funding available to small businesses suffering from covid-related slowdowns, but obviously, this wasn’t a long-term solution. So when I saw a job posting with DOB that seemed interesting–and included such luxuries as a regular paycheck and paid vacation–I applied. A few weeks later, I was invited to interview for the position.
The job was for a one-year term, with no guarantee of either renewal or transition to a permanent position. During the interview, I expressed my intention to keep my current practice, albeit on a nights/weekends basis, since the position would not be a permanent one. One of the interviewers seemed to be unduly troubled by this. She suggested letting the practice “go dormant” for the term of the job, but this would have been unworkable—not only would my clients have had to replace me, but I would still have had to carry all the practice-related expenses (which would no longer be deductible as business expenses, a point my accountant confirmed when we spoke after the interview).
Even so, an offer was extended by DOB. Since the issue of my side hustle had been left for further discussion at the interview, I raised it with the human resources individual to confirm that the offer was made in recognition of my intention to continue working an additional job. I assured her that I’d reviewed the applicable ethics code and had no reason to believe it would be a problem. The HR person indicated that this was not her decision. She referred the matter to the ethics liaison, with whom I spoke at some length and who asked me to put in writing everything I’d explained to her. I wrote a lengthy email in which I explained, point by point, all the reasons my practice would have no impact on the performance of my duties in the new position.
Then, I waited.
Finally, I received a call yesterday from the ethics liaison’s underling. Judging from the underling’s voice, I’m pretty sure I have shoes older than he is. Clearly reciting what he’d been told to say, he informed me that the DOB had determined that allowing me to keep my practice would be “administratively burdensome” since they would have to check all my potential conflicts of interest. He did not claim that my practice would violate the ethics code, presumably because everybody recognized that no basis existed for such a notion. He confirmed that the DOB does not check the claimed conflicts of other employees. Even so, he said that if I was not willing to close my practice, the DOB would rescind their offer of employment. In the end, this is precisely what happened.
My first reaction was anger. It’s one thing to be rejected on the merits, because I’m not qualified or not a good fit. It’s quite another to have a potential employer withdraw its offer because someone has imagined a problem and refuses to listen to facts that contradict their imagination.
When I told a friend what had happened, she said, “I’m sorry if you’re disappointed, but frankly, I think you’d have hated it there.” I allowed as how I was less disappointed than pissed off, which she opined was a fair reaction. But her words stayed with me.
As it turns out, King David was right: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Psalm 30:5 (NRSV).
Not that I was weeping last night, but this morning, there’s definitely joy. Or maybe just relief.
My office opens at 10:00. This morning at 10:15, a client called. For a long time, any early (for me) call would leave me inwardly groaning. Today, I was genuinely happy to take the call. We talked for ten minutes about concerns I’d raised in an email yesterday and the best way to address them. When we hung up, I felt as I had so long ago, when a client call meant a new opportunity rather than just another obligation.
As I fed the cats, I glanced at the kitchen calendar. My work deadlines are on the office calendar; the kitchen calendar is for personal appointments and commitments. I noted a virtual health care appointment today at 2:00, the washer repair person tomorrow between 10:00 and 2:00, a 12:30 hair appointment on Thursday, and a three-hour window on Friday to go to Protectors of Animals and meet the next cat whose bio I’ll write for the website. Life, maneuvering between professional commitments of varying types, all of which would have been difficult (or impossible) to schedule if I’d had to be in the DOB’s office during business hours.
Also, I’m writing this blog post in the middle of the day. If I worked for the DOB, this would violate the code of ethics requiring me to devote all of my working hours to the DOB’s business. On my own, I structure my work day as I choose. Granted, that structure is dictated in large part by deadlines (client or court-ordered), but unless there’s an emergency, the decision of which project to work at a given point is entirely mine.
Similarly, my starting and stopping hours are mine to choose. I publish my office hours as 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. In reality, this means that that’s when I’ll take client calls. In reality, the specific hours that I work on my practice, as distinct from writing, publishing, marketing, and life, are far more fluid. I may devote an hour to researching a motion and then take a break to put in a load of laundry (when the washer is working). Then, I may spend another hour on a research project, followed by a trip to the farmer’s market. Six o’clock may come and go as dinner cooks itself (I love my slow cooker) and I tease out a fine-line distinction between two cases.
All this freedom would have vanished if I’d taken the DOB job. I knew that, of course. But I was willing to trade freedom for a regular paycheck and the luxury of paid vacation. At least, I was yesterday. Tomorrow, I may return to worrying about the next project, the next client, the next unpaid bill. But not today.
Today, I have all I need. Here in my little blue office, I’m surrounded by cats. No dead office silence—here, classical music and cat snores provide a peaceful atmosphere. No supervisors or coworkers interrupt my concentration. The air conditioning is mine to adjust; I can open the windows if I’d rather enjoy a fresh breeze. Just a few steps away, I have access to good tea as well as healthy (and unhealthy) snacks. Folders and legal pads contain notes and documents about various projects, assuring me that at least for today, workflow continues. This is where I belong.
Independence Day may be two weeks away, but today, I feel truly, deliciously free.