Small Business

One Entrepreneur's Take on Unemployment


A small business owner explores his guilty feelings and learns to complain less as he hires unusually strong talent for modest pay in a bad economy

I've been feeling a little guilty lately.

No, it's not because I read the entire issue of People's Hottest Bachelors last week in the dentist's office. Or that I found it interesting that Chace Crawford has never, ever plucked his eyebrows. It's not because I feel kind of sorry that Colonel Gaddafi wasn't allowed to sleep in his tent in New Jersey. And it's not because I took my 14-year-old son to see Inglorious Basterds either. Sure, it was a completely inappropriate movie for a kid that age. But we loved that scene where all the Nazis got blown up inside the movie theatre.

Even so, these aren't why I'm feeling guilty. The real reason is because, as a small business owner, I've been benefiting from the country's high unemployment. Is this a bad thing?

I think we can all agree that unemployment is a bad thing. Involuntarily losing a job is terrible. Not having any tangible work to do can kill a person's self-esteem. It makes one seem irrelevant and meaningless. Just ask Kanye West. Yes, being unemployed is bad.

But…there's a bigger and better supply of talent available, right? And this was made possible by the lousy economy. There are unemployed certified engineers. Trained sales people. Experienced administrators. Skilled managers. For God's sake, Jenna Bush just took a job with the Today Show. Talk about a lousy job market.

Fear is Probably Good

There are good, bright, educated people available today that a small business owner could have never afforded a few years ago. And they're willing—no, let's admit it—grateful to work for less money and longer hours. Some of these people would never have considered working for a company the size of mine a few years ago. Now they appreciate the benefits of working for smaller companies, the challenges they could never get elsewhere, and the job security they can create for themselves by helping their bosses create value in their organizations. Not to mention the guffaws and yuck-yucks they'd get working by my side day-in, day-out. Gee, what a treat.

And what about the people who still have their jobs? They're not laughing. Most of them are nervous. Anxious. Scared. And you know what? That's good. We should all be scared. I'm scared that my pipeline will run dry. Or that one big client won't pay his outstanding invoice. Or that Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter will one day get together and produce a child. That's scary.

So let us all be scared that we could potentially lose our jobs or our businesses because of this economy. Everyone's working harder. Trying to do an even better job for our customers. Putting in extra hours. We're all working harder to make ourselves more valuable to our companies. This is a direct product of 10% unemployment. And the higher it goes, the harder people are going to work. No one should feel guilty about that.

I guess that means I shouldn't feel guilty about letting someone go who hasn't been giving it his best, right? Every company has a few people who aren't doing as good a job as others. Some companies, such as NBC, give these people a daily prime time comedy show. But the rest of us make some changes and shed unproductive deadweight. Then we blame the bad economy and point to others who are also laying off people and say we're only doing what we must to survive. It's a great excuse. And we couldn't have used it a few years ago. Should I feel guilty about that?

Larry Ellison's $84,598,699 pay cut

Maybe. But a silver lining in these days of high unemployment is that employers have a chance to show the rest of their good, loyal people just how much they're appreciated. I think that many people will emerge from this recession with a higher sense of loyalty to employers who did everything they could to help them hold on to their jobs. That certainly helps ease the guilt.

Because let's face it: The upside to the high unemployment rate is that it has helped us control our payroll costs. No one's asking for raises. No one's demanding more benefits. Lots of businesses are actually cutting salaries and benefits. As recently as August, Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison announced that his pay for this year would be reduced to only one dollar. That's a significant reduction from the $84,598,700 he earned last year. See? Everyone's doing their part in these tough, tough times.

And if I don't want to pay a full-time person $84,598,700, it's now easier and more politically correct to hire part-timers, subcontractors, and other outsourced help to fill the gaps. That's because when people are out of work, they'll do whatever they've got to do to bring in cash. Just ask Lou Diamond Philips, Stephen Baldwin, Heidi Montag, and the rest of the cast of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I don't need a washed-up celebrity. But I'm often in need of an experienced part-time programmer to write that application for my client. And I can hire him now for lot less than I could have paid before. I could use some marketing help but instead of hiring a full-time marketing person, I can have that talented woman in Dallas do the work for me at 10 hours a week. She's happy for the extra hours.

Because of the rising unemployment numbers, many business owners are in a better situation than they'd like to admit. And I think this also causes some guilt. We like to complain a lot. We complain about the long hours. About our customers that don't pay. And the suppliers who don't deliver on time. But seeing unemployment rise, I find myself complaining a lot less. I see friends losing their jobs and suddenly the headaches of running a small company don't seem so major. I'm happy that I can forecast my future cash flow and have the power to make adjustments to keep as many people as I can—including myself—employed. I'm relieved that my life isn't controlled by selfish bosses.

Do I feel guilty about all this? A bit. But not as guilty as I feel after reading about People's Hottest Bachelors. Or that I pluck my eyebrows more often than Chace Crawford.


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