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You own your brain

I met someone last week who said her employer — a large integrated oil & gas company — 'owned her'. She said she'd signed an employment agreement that unequivocally spelt this out. This person was certainly a professional on paper, with a graduate degree and plenty of experience. But the company had, perhaps unwittingly, robbed her of her professional independence and self-determination. What a thing to lose.

Agreements like this erode our profession. Do not sign agreements like this. 

The idea that a corporation can own a person is obviously ludicrous — I'm certain she didn't mean it literally. But I think lots of people feel confined by their employment. For some reason, it's acceptable to gossip and whisper over coffee, but talking in any public way about our work is uncomfortable for some people. This needs to change.

Your employer owns your products. They pay you for concerted effort on things they need, and to have their socks knocked off occasionally. But they don't own your creativity, judgment, insight, and ideas — the things that make you a professional. They own their data, and their tools, and their processes, but they don't own the people or the intellects that created them. And they can't — or shouldn't be able to — stop you from going out into the world and being an active, engaged professional, free to exerise and discuss our science with whomever you like.

If you're asked to sign something saying you can't talk at meetings, write about your work, or contribute to open projects like SEGwiki — stop.

These contracts only exist because people sign them. Just say, 'No. I am a professional. I own my brain.'

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Reader Comments (5)

Love your schematic of 'the geophysical brain'. To me, the GPU is the most fascinating blob of grey matter, for it is here that we do a lot of problem solving. I don't think our GPU is a highly organized, logical actually feels a bit messy and chaotic. It is not a formula, and it is not even a formal neural network. However, it works pretty good; and it uses processes like analog comparisons (experience), approximations, brainstorming with peers, pattern recognition, decomposing the problem/data, trial and error and serendipity (random association)....what a beauty. We'd still be living in caves without it.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTooney

@Tooney: Totally agree... it's the thing that makes me a bit uncomfortable with any kind of automatic interpretation, as wonderful as Dave Hale's tools are, though I'm drawn to the objectivity and reproducibility of those methods. The glory, I suppose, will be in combining the wonderful features of the wetware with the awesome advantages of the software.

November 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

How true!

I think all of us know somebody who was a great student, leading projects at uni, great in their postgrad.. and then disappeared in the guts of some major company, where they are not allowed to present anything.

At the end, everything is a question of money. Get less money (or perhaps even more, who knows...) in a smaller company, a consultancy that let's you present (you are your own marketing a sales manager...) and of course they encourage your publishing as much as your customers will be happy with.

Great posts, as usual :0) I will steal some ideas for my site :D

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJorge

I find the opposite Matt! Sure no-one owns your brain but especially early in your career when you give so much loyalty to your first "proper" employer, you feel occasionally used and eventually unappreciated. But then you leave.

Now I see things from the other side! As employers ourselves, we are never in the position where we "trap" folk in their contracts. We have to accept we are stepping stones in their career path. Nevertheless, we try to make them stay if we can as for a small company, each good person that leaves causes us a painful wound. We pay retention bonuses and train folk up, give them social events like most companies, and even reward them to write papers. All these initiative are successful up to a point but there is a trickle out of our business of the good mid-level folk.

Oil companies are being particularly predatory at the moment and we struggle to persuade folk that operators are not always the place to spread your wings. You may easily be pigeon-holed and contained in your silo! I suspect Jorge and I would agree that consultants help more folk in their career than support folk in oil companies - the variety is a defining characteristic of consultancies and the experience of different tools, methodologies and cultures an enriching one.

All to no avail. The only way to "own" staff it seem, is to be an oil company!

April 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

@JJ: Totally with you on the point about variety in consultancies. I can understand the draw of operators though — less breadth but more depth, big science, lots of data, and awesome scientists trying to do really hard things. Almost enough to make you forget about the corporate shackles, pointless meetings, daft HR processes, politics, etc. I've switched from operating to consulting to operating again and back again. I doubt I will switch again.

Definitely just my opinion, and I'm hardly a business maven, but I think retention bonuses are a bad idea — too transactional. I think attrition is one of those Cope don't fix situations. I mean, you can't reduce it to zero (that's called prison), and maybe you wouldn't want it to be zero anyway, so I wonder if it's better look for ways to cope with the fact that people will come and go. Some random ideas, possibly silly:

- A strong brand, with identifiable principles and strategy, that burns as bright as any employee.
- Top-notch knowledge sharing and knowledge capture.
- Strong customer orientation and consistent quality, so they don't care too much who is delivering the services.
- Collaboration before employment, so they really know what they're getting into.
- Being as awesome a place to work as possible so people champion you even after they leave.
- Share ownership could help ensure that good people maintain an interest in the company after they leave.

April 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

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