If You No Get Money, Hide Your Face The Toxic Underbelly of Nigeria’s Employment System

few years ago, Gbolahan accepted a job offer at a law firm in the heart of Ikoyi, Lagos. It wasn’t his dream job, but it did save him from brooding on his friend’s couch in Lekki while everyone else was out earning a living. In any case, Gbolahan’s friend was fed up of giving him handouts and Gbolahan himself was tired of having to ask for them. But soon after he started at the law firm, Gbolahan realized that the information he had gotten about his new job (largely from the firm’s website) was bogus—that there were far fewer staff than represented on the firm’s letterhead, and that the office space was much smaller than the managing partner had indicated during the interview.

And yet, these were not his most pressing concerns. At work, the managing partner had a habit of making condescending remarks that made Gbolahan question his own abilities. His lunch breaks were frequently cut short, his salary was delayed on multiple occasions (once, he received a post-dated cheque), and he was under constant pressure to bring in more clients, despite the fact that he had just moved to the city and he knew virtually nobody.

At the end of his three-month probation period, it became clear to Gbolahan that his managing partner was looking for excuses to not increase Gbolahan’s remuneration. Instead, the partner casually stated that Gbolahan’s output ‘had not been up to standard’, despite Gbolahan working the longest hours and even carrying out multiple roles from time to time. Knowing what was coming, Gbolahan waited for the close of business one humid Thursday, cleared his desk, and formally resigned. It took him three months to rebuild his self-confidence and begin drafting cover letters to attach to his resume once more.

Gbolahan’s Story is By No Means Unique

A sizeable portion of millennials in Nigeria are currently being pushed to extremes in the name of ‘being gainfully employed’. They are cornered by the relentless rise in unemployment, account balance statements with more troughs than peaks, and subtle digs from relatives. 30 months without a steady income and the fact that calls to that well-connected uncle are now ‘forwarded to another number’ prompt one to seize the first opportunity with both hands.

Like Gbolahan, you may have been taken in by the firm’s fancy web page. The anticipation of a salary makes you sign the employment contract (if you actually get one) without a second thought. Next, you are slowly coerced into covering roles beyond your job description, you now have ridiculous yet non-negotiable targets to meet, all before you are ‘let go’ after being worked to the bone. You may get a formal notice if your employer is ‘nice enough’, but to expect a severance package might be to push optimism into the realm of foolishness.

I was employed as a digital marketer—at least that was what my contract said—but in less than two months, I found myself carrying out the roles of an administrative officer and even a marketer’, says Rosemond, who previously worked in a hospitality outsourcing firm in Magodo, Lagos. ‘Working hours were supposed to be from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, but I soon found myself working on weekends, too. There were many days we were made to close by 9 p.m., and sometimes I would receive instructions to go to the market to shop for items: when did digital marketing begin to include haggling for wares? One evening I closed from work and was on my way home when my boss called me to come back to the office. I told him I was closer to my house than I was to the office, and as such I couldn’t turn back. He told me to never come back to the firm again, and the next morning I got a text saying my desk had been cleared. My outstanding salary has not been paid to date’.

If you are not (unceremoniously) kicked out, the conditions become so unbearable that you ‘finally’ resign (don’t bother with a resignation letter or your notice period, they won’t care), leaving behind months of unpaid salary that might only be recoverable through court action. Then again, how many employees can afford the services of a lawyer specialized in labour law? How many are even aware of their employment rights, particularly regarding compensation and wrongful dismissal? In reality, not many.

Employers Have the Power and They Know It

The combination of an imbalance of power and limited finances leaves Nigeria’s employees at the mercy of employers, who are acutely aware of their Zeus or Amun-Ra status: they know they have the financial might and that the balance in terms of bargaining power tilts in their favour, so they revel in playing God and in subjecting hapless employees to their whims. Public organizations with defined structures are marginally better for those at the bottom of the pyramid: most have their establishment and operations defined by specific laws, with stringent disciplinary and dismissal policies which leave no room for arbitrariness.

In private enterprises, conversely, your ‘daily bread’ could be jeopardized by the side of the bed your manager gets up on; the risk that he or she could pull a Thanos and take you from employed to ‘between jobs’ like that is very real. The stark reality is that a vacancy for your (old) role will be advertised and filled within hours—there is always a Gbolahan, someone else on a friend’s couch, somewhere—and this brutal dispensability means that employees will put up with more for longer.

There is no guarantee that the next offer letter will come, and employees are eager to avoid unfavourable recommendations from previous employers or even chase for these recommendations to begin with. As a result, employees do everything humanly possible to hold on to a job, even when faced with inhumane conditions, and the boundaries of what is considered extreme or farfetched are pushed further and further. The urge to blame labour unions and challenge their effectiveness against the vulnerability of employees is very tempting, but labour unions themselves experience challenges in protecting and advancing the rights of employees because employers have the upper hand. Employers use their power to actively discourage unionization by spreading propaganda about union leadership and organization.

Power dynamics also fuel the prevalence of sexism and gender imbalance in the employment ecosystem. A woman in the labour market must navigate her career like an antelope continuously trying to evade a pride of lions: from hiring managers who slide into the InMails of prospective employees to top-level staff who make brazen passes at female subordinates. She is on the back foot from the earliest stage of her career and finds herself on the defensive at each stage of the corporate ladder. She learns to ‘be patient’ when she is passed up for a promotion and, in several cases, ends up working under far less qualified male colleagues. For female sales executives assessed against their ability to meet huge targets, there is the added pressure of tactfully rejecting advances from lecherous clients without losing their business.

Ifeoma, content creator and part-time model, tells me she had to walk away from her role in a fast-rising advertising agency in Lagos to protect her sanity. According to her, ‘I got fed up with his advances, which were not only getting in between work but also affecting my relationship with my (then) boyfriend. Few days after I handed in the required three-week notice of resignation, I found that I had been logged out of my office e-mail. My boss went on to slander me, telling other staff that I was unproductive, before throwing a letter at me wherein he ‘accepted my resignation’ and ordered me to leave the work premises immediately. His wife was hostile to me, too, and I heard from the grapevine that it was she who influenced my dismissal’.

(Where) Does Mental Health Awareness Come In?

There has been a slow, but gradual increase in mental health awareness among Nigerians. Across Nigeria, the number of suicides and suicide attempts across the country surges from a rate of 0.6 per 100,000 people among those fourteen years and younger to 6.9 per 100,000 people among those aged fifteen to nineteen years. Non-governmental organizations, such as the Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI), now emphasize on the need for people to be more conscious of their mental health while connecting people to mental health professionals. Increasingly, Nigerians are recognizing the importance and benefit of therapy. However, this recognition is yet to find its way to the workplace, as there is still very little mental health awareness in corporate environments, and some who may have hinted at mental health struggles have been accused of being ‘mentally lazy’.

Many employees, especially in larger firms, still have to navigate their careers through toxic work environments, with no respite from anxiety brought on by gruelling work schedules and job insecurity, or depression from job dissatisfaction and/or career stagnation. Those who have been diagnosed with mental illness have to be very discreet about it, as corporate Nigeria has little empathy for those with mental health struggles. Employers, it seems, find it easier to lay off such people, based on the erroneous assumption that they would be unable to function to optimum capacity.

Busola, currently job-hunting, shared how she did not get the chance to resign before she got fired. ‘I just got sacked because I have a mental illness and I disclosed this to only my HR. I was told by the CEO that I would even be sued for it. Just because I’m depressed and asked for a sick leave just so I could get some psychotherapy, I have lost my job.’

Employers are not the only ones with more to learn when it comes to mental health. There is surprisingly little solidarity even among employees when they get wind of a colleague struggling with mental health, and their lack of tact and sensitivity can make for an extremely uncomfortable working environment. The most common reactions are based on the stigma around mental health in Nigeria—people still attribute mental illnesses to spiritual attacks or generational curses, and hold on tightly to the opinion that mental illnesses can be cured by intensive prayer sessions, laying of hands or in extreme cases, repeated flogging.

Charles, a former customer service officer at a microfinance bank, regrets opening up about his mental health to a colleague he believed was a close friend. He recalls his colleague went on to tell everyone about his struggles. According to Charles, ‘I don’t know when or how she did it, but I noticed that the week after I confided in her, they began to interact with me rather strangely. It got worse; they would take glowing glances and gossip. I felt betrayed, I began to feel suicidal, and then one day, I just upped and left’.

Faced with the prospect of such reactions, it is no wonder that employees who struggle with mental health will go the extra mile to keep their struggles private. Nneka, a mid-level logistics officer at an oil servicing firm in Lagos, has been on antidepressants for over five years. ‘No one in the office knows about the way I lock myself in the restroom and weep during lunch hours. They cannot perceive any signs of weakness, and definitely not one of this nature—you will just receive a sack letter before the end of the week’.

The Millenials Strike Back

Serial entrepreneur and bestselling author, Doop Patel, suggests that employee review sites are a way for employees to regain some of the power. These portals give previous employees the opportunity (without fear of having their identity revealed) to speak candidly about working conditions, culture, and policy at the firm in question; if employees must sometimes rely on recommendations from former employers, then employees should be able to influence public perception of these employers by sharing their experiences, too. Employee review sites like Glassdoor, Indeed, Kununu, Vault and CareerBliss allow employees to rate current or previous employers on a scale of one to five and also leave comments about job security and work-life balance.

Proponents of the employee review method have hinted at the operations of Google Play—which provides an avenue where users can review applications downloaded thereon—and opined that employers should be exposed to scrutiny and strong opinions, since the apprehension of bad publicity will make a firm’s management more mindful of how employees are treated and temper their sense of omnipotence. However, the slow pace of technological advancement in these parts—the 4G network is still relatively new in Nigeria—and the risk of confidentiality breaches mean that such portals may be less accessible and secure than intended, making it difficult to view online reviews as a viable solution in Nigeria.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Millennials are coming up with new ways to give the employment system a run for its money. Young people are not only becoming more conscious of the fact that one source of income is inadequate in Nigeria’s volatile economy, but they are also now more deliberate in making choices that ultimately impact their ease of living. To this end, there is an increasing number of individuals freelancing remotely, and even some of whom now find the very idea of an office restrictive. For instance, there are currently over 2,000 freelancers on Proville, an indigenous freelancing platform.

Graphic designer and data analyst, Jason, says, ‘I can’t imagine myself wearing a shirt and tie. I’m glad I learnt all these things back in school: coding, analytics, graphics, all that. I see my friends that work regular jobs, they always look stressed and they are ageing fast. I like the fact that from my laptop, I can meet people’s needs, solicit for jobs and get paid. Only real money I spend is on fuel, and that’s because electricity in Nigeria is a mess.’

Other young people supplement a less stressful day job with a ‘side hustle’ pursued after working hours or on the weekends. Perfecting the side hustle is key. ‘It means fewer hours of sleep, but in the end, my account balance is better for it’, says Temi, who is a lawyer by day, but edits and proofreads manuscripts and dissertations at night. ‘Thankfully my law firm is relatively flexible compared to others, so sometimes I get to close by 5 p.m., and that gives me the chance to attend to clients who want me to look at whatever they have written so I can work on it. I don’t go to work on weekends either, so that gives me a little bit of balance.’

There is still a long way to go, however, as many organizations have not yet acculturated to working remotely, structures are still rigid, and the demand for freelancers is still limited. It is not quite Uhuru for young Nigerians yet, but it is both comforting and encouraging to see that approaches and attitudes to work in Nigeria are slowly evolving