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 of the time and most adults have an understanding of 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 work will occur in the employer's designated workplace.
  • The work is designed to accomplish the employer organization’s goals and mission.
  • In return, the employee receives compensation.

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

Time and Compensation of Employment

Employment can run the gamut of time commitments and compensation plans. No two jobs are necessarily alike depending on different employment arrangements an employer and employee agree to verbally or in writing.

For example, employment can be:

  • Employment can last for a short period of time or it can last for 30-40 years with the same employer.
  • Employment can offer flexible employee work schedules or require the employee to work a job daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with time off for an hour of lunchtime.

As long as the employer is covering his end of the responsibility to pay the employee and the employee wants to continue to work for his employer, the employment relationship will continue.

This includes the fact that setting up the terms and conditions of employment is largely in the hands of the employer. Individual employees can come to negotiated terms but the location, days, hours of work, the work environment, and even the organizational culture are set by the employer.

Employees may make the effort to negotiate any of the terms and conditions of employment but have generally accepted the job with a clear understanding of what the employer is offering. 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

In employment, 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.

Workplaces 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 find a job and stay employed needs to find and interact with an environment that meets his or her needs for autonomy, direction, empowerment, and satisfaction.

If an employee has a disagreement with an employer in the private sector, the employee can discuss the unhappiness with his manager, go to the Human Resources department, talk to his 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 his state Department of Labor or equivalent. But, there is no assuredness that his point of view will prevail in any potential contact with his employer or in a lawsuit.

In the public sector employment, a union-negotiated contract may govern the ability of the employee to negotiate desired changes.

But, the employee still has the opportunity to speak with his manager and the organization's HR department. But again, with a contract in place, employers have a difficult time treating employees differently.

The Government's Role in Employment

In the United States, much of an 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 and the expectations of employees about their employers of choice.

Increasingly, however, Federal and state laws are enacted which direct the employment relationship and decrease the autonomy of employers. 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.