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I was a tree planting contractor during the 80s. This was way back when we all had landlines and sent jokes to each other on fax machines. There was no social media. The internet was barely an idea.

In those days when you were hearing someone’s opinion of an employer or some employment experience, that person was likely in front of you. Or if you were reading something that someone had taken the time to write (by hand even) chances are it was someone you knew. You were in a good position then, to assess the reliability of the information you were getting.

Even if you didn’t know the person talking, you could hear between the lines, so to speak. We are apes, after all, and we are wired to appreciate gesture, context, tone etc. when we communicate. It’s a handy thing to have when it comes to assessing threats and making sense of the world; including who’s believable or not.

Given its title and the logical progression of this essay, this is where I now decry social media and all its proliferating deficiencies: its anonymity, the absence of reflection, the attenuation of the context and complexity we need to communicate effectively as a species and the problem of so many jerks with keyboards and a public platform.

But that is not the point I want to make.

Even with a nostalgic, prelapsarian view of the time before technology arrived and ruined everything, there was a problem with communicating. People were still people. And how they felt about things, including their employers, had as much, if not more, to do with themselves as it did with the conditions they experienced. As any neuroscientist, some philosophers, and all quantum physicists will tell you, the world is a very subjective place, including tree planting crews.

Over my decade as an employer, a few hundred people worked for me. We were a small company. We worked in late winter and early spring on the very west coast of Vancouver Island and many of the coastal inlets. The Zeballos Hotel was one of our marshalling points. We would follow freshet up the Fraser Valley to Boston Bar and finally wind up in the Kootenays by summer. Almost all of our work was done from remote tent camps.

Just what my employees might have thought of their experiences with my company is likely to be as varied as each of them. Some worked with me all those years and we are still friends. Others took me to employment standards hearings. One season our camp comprised eight languages including English, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Berber, Arabic, Mayan, and Maori. And this was before DEI. Some of those who worked for me went on to become nationally recognized artists, professionals and breeding pairs as parents.

Some of my hires were misfits and malefactors one of whom may still be serving time at the pleasure of the Crown. Others went on to, or back to the trades. Two went on to become planting contractors. A few rookies were naturals and took to the work with alacrity. Others just never got it. The rest followed the bell curve. Some wrote me hate mail. One worker said I helped him turn his life around.

Now add their characters to all the conditions we were exposed to. We worked within sight of Mount Waddington on one project. A majestic setting. But grizzlies ran us out of our camp.

Camped near Fair Harbour, it rained 45 days straight one spring. Morale sank to that of a penal colony. We barged into remote Seymour Inlet once, towed by a fatalist tugboat captain who told us we all might drown at the infamous entrance narrows if we missed the tide. He refused to come back to pick us up a month later. In the East Kootenay, everyone but my supervisors got giardia. Health inspectors condemned our camp.

Running through all this was the work. The ground was good. The ground was bad. People got hurt. People got better. People came. People went. The weather was awful. The weather was fine. The food was good. The food wasn’t. The money was good. It wasn’t.

Add all those conditions to the intimacy of camp life. Some days it was the misery that binds. Others it was the uplift of shared purpose. Some days no one was buying whatever crap they weren’t buying that day. And somebody always let somebody else’s boots scorch in the dry tent. Life in camp had its moments, many of them.

Given, then, the rich domain of possibilities, how could anyone, or even a few, reviews on Reddit—if it had existed then—be reliable indicators of how good or bad it was to work for me or any employer?

This is not to say today social media is only good for complaining on Yelp about how long it took your waiter to serve you. You can find first-person contractor reviews that look more objectively at employer performance. They may be fair comment in their assessment of a company’s systems, management, equipment and so on. Although, we still have the authors’ subjectivity to keep in mind. Less helpful are accounts trading in invective, personal attacks and using social media as a personal grievance mill. It would be wise to read social media reviews of employers with some healthy skepticism.

Another, perhaps, more reliable way to find good employers might be to see what the employers themselves say about working for them. If their website has too many pictures of everyone having a good time, maybe that is too many pictures of people having a good time. If the employer communicates with glib statements about how well they will look after you, while not offering any evidence of how they will do that, then some skepticism might be in order.

What you should see from an employer is a very clear definition of what you can expect from them and what they will expect of you. They should provide a clear explanation of their human resource systems and the practices they have in place to ensure your well-being and safety including evidence of their respect for the rules and principles that govern employer and employee relationships and good business in general. They should also provide an unvarnished characterization of the work involved. With that kind of information, you would be better informed to make that very subjective decision about who you want to work for.


The Small Problem of Social Media Subjectivity

... and whether you can trust everything you read about employers or anybody.

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