What Is Employment?

Take a Closer Look at What It Means to Be Employed

Workers in line
••• Getty Images/John Lamb

We use the word employee all the time, and most adults know what it means to be employed. Yet, there is a very specific definition of employment and it's a good idea for both employers and employees to review it from time to time.

What Does It Mean to Be Employed?

Employment is an agreement between an employer and an employee that the employee will provide certain services on the job. The employment agreement ensures that:

  • The work will occur in the employer's designated workplace (which can a telecommuter's home)
  • The work is designed to accomplish the employer organization’s goals and mission
  • In exchange for work performed, the employee receives compensation

An employment agreement for an individual employee can be verbal, written in an email, or it can be a job offer letter. The offer of employment can be implied in an interview or written in a formal, official employment contract.

Time and Compensation of Employment

Employment runs the gamut in terms of the different kinds of time commitments and compensation plans. No two jobs are alike.

For example, employment can be:

  • An hourly part-time job that is paid a certain dollar amount for each hour worked
  • Full-time employment in which individuals receive a salary and benefits from an employer for performing all the tasks required by a particular position
  • Employment can last for a short period of time or it can last for 30-40 years with the same employer.
  • Employers can offer flexible employee work schedules or require the employee to work Monday–Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour off for lunch and two 20-minutes breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon (as required by law).

    As long as the employer upholds his end of the deal to pay the employee (and pay on time) and the employee wants to continue to work for his employer, the employment relationship will continue.

    This takes into consideration the fact that the terms and conditions of employment are largely in the hands of the employer. Individual employees can negotiate certain terms of a contract (such as a higher compensation, or additional days off) but the location, hours of work, the work environment, and even the organizational culture are set in cement by the employer.

    The best time to negotiate is before accepting a job offer if options such as a flexible work schedule are desired.

    Employment ends at the prerogative of the employer or the employee. Especially in locations that are right-to-work at-will states, employers may terminate employment or employees may quit for no reason or any reason they choose.

    The Work and The Workplace Environment

    The employer determines the where, when, how, why, and what of the work that is performed by the employee. The degree of input, autonomy, and self-directedness that an employee experiences on the job are a by-product of an employer’s philosophy of management and employment.

    Workplace cultures range from authoritarian with a strongly centralized chain of command to employee-centric environments in which employees have input and make decisions. Each person who wants to secure a job (and keep the job) needs to find an environment that meets his or her needs in regards to autonomy, empowerment, and satisfaction.

    If an employee has a disagreement with an employer in the private sector, the employee can discuss their issue with their manager, go to the Human Resources department, talk to their manager's manager, or give notice.

    In particularly unpleasant situations, the employee may also seek help from an employee-side employment law attorney or from her or his state Department of Labor or equivalent. But, there is no assuredness the disgruntled employee's point of view will prevail in a lawsuit.

    In the public sector, a union-negotiated contract may enhance the opportunity of the employee to negotiate their desired changes.

    The Government's Role in Employment

    In the United States, much of the employment relationship between an employer and employee is governed by the needs, profitability, and management philosophy of the employer. The employment relationship is also driven by the availability of employees in the marketplace (i.e., less available talent, more negotiating power for the employee) and the expectations of employees about their employers of choice.

    However, increasingly, Federal and state laws are enacted which direct the employment relationship and decrease the autonomy of employers—as a way to avoid abuse of power. It is important for employers to stay up-to-date on current regulations with the Federal and state governments.

    Government entities like the Department of Labor (at both the Federal and state levels) are also available to employees. These organizations are tasked with tracking job statistics and can assist employees in disputes with their employers.