It is with some trepidation I am writing this. I haven’t been an employer that long, and a trusted developer told me “I don’t think you should be touting yourself as a guru on employment until you’ve messed up big time at least once”. So I’m laying that down as my disclaimer right now. However, since becoming an employer, ethical employment has usurped sound design as my go-to conversation topic and a point of interest for me. There is no question many of the biggest employers in the world are not only terrible at it but can be malicious or downright evil. These concepts and this frustration extends well beyond audio & games, but I’ll stick to what I know for the time being.
The one bite-sized thing I want any prospective employer to take away from this is:
Your company is literally made of people. People do better work when they are happy (your favourite goth rock artist aside). It is your responsibility and in your best interest as a company for employee welfare to be paramount.
Why do we even work for anyone ever?
Being “The Boss” was never my plan. I was a hand-to-mouth contractor, then I was a busy contractor, then I was a busy contractor with subcontractors, then I was a contractor with subcontractors who I needed full-time, and suddenly I was an….employer?? What? It just kinda happened and it scared the hell out of me. And I believe it should scare the hell out of anyone who hasn’t been an employer before.
Employing someone is buying a portion of their life from them. If you plan to employ someone full time (40 hours/week), you are asking them to devote ~35% of their waking hours to something you want to accomplish in exchange for the money they need to pay rent, eat food, and spend the other ~65% of their waking hours how they choose (in which they also need to take care of their own personal non-leisure doldrums). And let’s be real, almost no one is spending only the allotted 40 hours/week to their jobs. Most have a lengthy commute stuck on either end, some expectation for overtime, or some required amount of grey-area work that is done outside of official working hours. The real number for many is probably closer to 40%, and for many in this crunch-plagued industry it surely pushes past 50%.
When to Hire
When is even ok to ask someone to devote this much of their life to your stuff? I would argue it shouldn’t even be considered until you can do so with stability and sustainability. Ignoring this is a real jerk move. People uproot their lives when they get new jobs that they think are stable. They move to new cities--new countries, even--they take out loans, upgrade their cars and have babies. To present a bouquet of stability only to vanish it with a puff of smoke and a harp gliss because you made no plans for sustainability is, in my opinion, one of the most thoughtless chronic conditions in our industry.
Watching in frustration as entire departments of friends and mentors are unceremoniously laid off from their “stable jobs” because a corporate body failed to feed itself properly and opted to lop off a limb rather than adjust its diet is an all too familiar experience. I have seen it enough that is has become a focused rebellion for me as an employer. It is these practices I point to and say, pissed, “I don’t wanna be that”.
To avoid this I promised myself that as a company we would, among other things:
1) Always have a salary contingency fund of 4 months or more
2) Have diversified sources of income
#1 means that even if everything went wrong and we simply stopped making money, we would have 4+ months to figure things out or for people to find new work. #2 means that it is increasingly unlikely we will ever have to use #1.
How can one diversify? We have workflows that allow us to handle multiple titles at once; it’s not unusual we will have 10+ (varyingly) active projects. We also do the occasional non-game gigs, and are even starting to do entire game trailers. My music consistently brings in some passive income month to month. We are specialists in the independent game audio space, but we’re a group with a diverse array of skills and we use them to improve our own sustainability, and I’m constantly trying to think of ways we can put these tools to use.
How’d I get this dream team?
Who to Hire
Like many in game audio I don’t care about resumes. I watch reels to thin the herd, and have had people do test-packages in the past, but in the end I choose who I want to work with long term by… wait for it… working with them for a long time. Everyone at A Shell in the Pit worked as a contractor for several months before transitioning to being an employee.
One thing I want to emphasize I am not looking for is whether or not this person is someone I’d like to go get a drink with. I have those already; they’re called “friends” and I’m sure you’ve got some, too. I’m not building a Gord’s Friends Club. I am looking for someone I work well with and to be honest I couldn’t build a doghouse with some of my best friends. Working well together means we get jobs done on time, to a high standard without driving one another crazy. Can friendships develop between employers/employees? Of course! But if “Future BFF? ☐” is a checkbox on your requirements list, you’re not hiring ethically.
You are also making it a lot harder to be a diverse/inclusive employer and in are in turn not only hiring less ethically but negatively impacting your business. The whole “hire who you wanna hang out with” thing is often subconscious code for “agrees with me”. Terrible for diversity, and workforce diversity affects financial diversity. Diverse & underrepresented backgrounds will bring different skillsets, passions & viewpoints. This allows you to expand your business model and appeal to different types of projects.
Why would your employees help you get different projects?
Everyone should benefit when the company does
Remember when I said that employment was buying someone’s life to do your stuff? This is where it becomes our stuff.
Nothing nurtures resentment and fuels burnout more than watching someone else benefit disproportionately from one’s work. Nothing makes your team want you to slip in the tub more than putting them in a crunch environment for months and shipping a successful title off their aching backs with no promise of an improved working environment or pay. Nothing makes someone not give a shit whether the next game sells well more than seeing their boss roll into work in a cut-polished Audi worth double their salary when they had to fight tooth and nail for a 4% raise. If you want the bare minimum out of people or if you want your company--which is made of people, remember--to be a sick, leperous body, then be sure to keep all the rewards to yourself.
But we don’t want parts of our company falling off. So share in your successes and do so generously. Be it with actual shares or a generous percentage of profits. We currently share 35% of the company net profits with our team and my goal is to increase it as the years go by and as our contingency and reserve funds feel more stable. This incentivizes everyone to be involved in the success of the business but also in one anothers’ projects. It means we look out for and support one another on our many projects regardless of who is the lead. Every success is a shared success and so is every failure.
It is important, however, that this not turn into a “we pay you less than minimum wage but the tips can be great” situation. This incentive must always be in addition to a living wage.
One of the most grievous guilts of modern employment is our tendency to treat people like machines. Lazy employers seem to forget that doing the same thing every single day is at best exhausting and at worst soul-destroying. This kills passions. This makes people who were beaming with excitement to get their first game audio gig burn out after 2 years and quit forever.
Everyone on our team has experienced this to a certain degree, so I have been maintaining a list of tasks that are still valuable but are not necessarily related to content creation. Any of us can spend a day on these things and still be productive while escaping whatever is wearing us out until we’re ready to come back to it. It could be product research for new gear or a backup service, looking for new games we might want to work on, making a to-do list for a website revamp, looking for cool artists we could hire for merch, etc. etc. There is no limit to creative ways value can be added to the business. Not only do these provide relief for whatever part of the brain was getting worn out, but they remind us that we are not single-purpose cogs.
Listen, but also ask
My biggest mistake has been assuming people would come and tell me when they were having problems. This is rarely the case. As soon as you are an employer or employee you enter a preordained-by-society power dynamic no matter what kind of employer you are. It can be threatening and scary for people to come to you with their problems due to this, or their experiences with past employers and other authority figures. It must not only be clearly communicated that you are open to discussing these issues, but you need to actively check in to see if there is anything going on that has been flying under your radar that you need to address and resolve. It’s so easy to assume that silence is a sign of everything running smoothly. Usually employers and managers are insanely busy, so it’s much easier to assume the position that if the wheels aren’t squeakin’ then there’s no need for greasin’. But people aren’t wheels and your company is not your car. Make an effort. Everyone should be invited privately to share their grievances, concerns or creative ideas on a fairly regular basis.
I’d like to share two pieces of wisdom Audiokinetic (an ethical employer!) co-founder Simon Ashby shared with me last time he was in Vancouver that have really stuck with me:
1. “We’re always shipping”
...therefore crunch is futile and unnecessary. The same goes for our company. We ship several titles a year, so if we agreed to a crunch environment we would be crunching all the time. I rejected crunch from the outset and make it known to our clients that our staff are only available from 9-5 on weekdays. It really has been as easy as that. As the employer I work some late nights for emergencies (and because I have my own bad work/life balance problems) but rarely have I had to ask the same from my employees, and never on a consistent or extended basis.
2. “Life happens”
Your company is made of people therefore life will happen to them. Family members die, people get sick, deal with mental health issues and experience painful breakups. They also get married, have kids and experience all the other more positive & colourful rites of passage that make us human. It is your responsibility to respond to this in a human way. Getting over these things can take time, and if you value your company you must be patient and understanding, and it is up to you to make the decisions on what qualifies as ethical in these situations or not, as there is not always an official guideline for them.
For example, Canada’s legal guideline for bereavement leave is 3 days for the death of an immediate family member. Three days. IMMEDIATE family member; this could include a spouse or child. You could lose a child and be expected back at work 3 days later if you didn’t want to start eating into your savings. Oh, and if they die on Friday, you’ll only get Monday off because Saturday & Sunday ate up two of your days. It also eats up your vacation days.
When I learned this I was pretty disgusted, but some employers will use this as an opportunity to shuffle their own ethical responsibilities onto the back of the government. As a team we structured our own policy according to guidelines we felt were more ethical.
In closing: Companies aren’t machines. People aren’t parts. Listen to your teams as carefully as you do to your mixes. This should be a dream job; let’s make it true.