Clear hour glass near stacks of coins. Photo by  seng kui lim  on  Scopio

I recently read a study on creatives that stated people find it more acceptable to give employees who are passionate about their work do extra, unpaid, or demeaning work. Test respondents responded to questions about fictional individuals, and when it was stated the person was passionate about their job they stated it was more legitimate for the manager to ask them to do things even beyond their job description, such as leaving a day at the park to come in and clean the office bathroom.

If you are a social worker, creative, teacher, or any type of freelancer, I bet you already feel some of this. During my MBA I felt similarly outraged when reading an economics textbook which explained that people receive pay for jobs commensurate with what value society places on the job they do – this is the capitalist machine at work, weeding out the good businesses from the bad ones. And I do believe in capitalism and making money, but by that logic, Belle Delphine performs a greater good to society when she makes videos of herself cross-eyed in a thong than a paramedic does while LITERALLY saving lives.

I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken to social workers, teachers, and artists about the work that they do or the things that they make and how it doesn’t add up with their pay. I understand that an artist or a freelancer does have to contend with demand for their product – if you’re not making something good, you won’t get buyers – but I am talking about customers requesting things for free repeatedly with the only benefit to the artist as “exposure”, or people asking for a favor because of personal friendship. I have friends who are photographers, writers, artists, and yoga instructors and you can bet I pay everyone who does me a service, it’s not that hard. I personally was looking for paid writing work on a website where I was offered THIRTY CENTS per article on complex business theory topics, and the position required a bachelor’s, master’s preferred.

Teachers and social workers often do have master’s degrees and are still working second jobs to make ends meet. What does that say about what society values? Children’s issues and education are always strong campaign points, but when it comes to actually funding schools why is this so hard? Why do nonprofits have to squeeze staff until they bleed? I’m honestly not even a fan of the idea of a nonprofit anymore. I understand the basis, and it’s a good thought, but I believe that positioning an organization as not for profit has come to be synonymous with “unpaid” or “underpaid” and when you devalue your workers, all your do-gooding kind of goes out the door. Obviously there need to be societal changes with how we structure organizations for people in structured jobs like teachers and social workers to be paid what they’re worth. We can do that by lobbying, legislating, and advocating, but there are little things we can do now to make this stop.

We can change the way we talk about money. Don’t be ashamed to tell people what you earn. Silence allows for discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay. If we don’t know what our coworkers and friends earn, how can we know if we’re being exploited?

We can refuse to accept lower pay. I had Resmaa Menakem (check him out) as my internship supervisor during my MSW program, and when I was job searching I mentioned looking at a job which paid less. He adamantly told me to never accept less pay than what I was getting and I’ve never veered from that. I know that some jobs look great on your resume, and sometimes opportunities are unpaid, but my rule of thumb is I never take on a job or position unless it’s going to further me in some way – financially, build a skill, or improve my network to get me to somewhere I want to be. If I go to an interview and the pay is too low, I’ll first negotiate and then leave. Don’t waste time on companies that don’t know your value. Freelancers, ask others what they charge for similar jobs, and don’t devalue your work just to get business. If people want the cheapest possible, there’s always an option. You are providing a quality service and that’s reflected in your prices. If it’s hard for you to negotiate money or ask for more, start reading articles on tactics, practice with a friend, and work on your self-esteem.

We can stop being naive about employer relationships. It’s easy to get swept up in company rhetoric about the mission, the vision, the values, and to start believing you’re part of some big, happy family. You are not. You have a family, and it’s not at your job. Your employer can and will get rid of your position at a moment’s notice if it’s not proven to be profitable, regardless of whether the mission of that company is to better the world. Your workplace cannot survive if it doesn’t look at profitability. When you hear speeches about group cohesion and being a team player, remember that as much as you love your coworkers or your boss, you perform a function that makes someone money. This may sound cynical but it’s real. People work at organizations for years of their lives, make friends, even find spouses, and then are put on the chopping block for restructuring. It’s devastating when you realize the company you loved didn’t love you back.

We can demand that employers show the compensation for jobs. If you see a job that doesn’t have the pay posted, don’t apply. If you can’t find any or you’re desperate, tell the HR rep when you’re finished with the interview process. If you’re hired, you’ll have an in, and if you’re not, you’ll be giving them feedback that’ll help their process for the next person. You can also post on GlassDoor anonymously and let other people know if your employer (or a place you interviewed) does not post pay of jobs, and state what the pay range actually is.

We can ask to see the department budget and financial goals with the team. Sure they may say no, and there could be information on it that’s confidential, but ask them to share what information they can. There is a good reason for the team to see how much money is allocated to different part of your business. Hiding the funding sources and amounts from front-line staff is just plain shady – everyone on a team should understand how their work contributes to the finances of their department and employer as a whole.

Now go out there and ask for what you deserve!

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