Paying Well: Compensation Is Never Straightforward

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We laughed out loud, the three of us shivering in the garage, breath visible in the biting cold, before one of them handed me some folded cash. I took it like an after-thought, like it didn’t matter, then slipped it into my pocket while making another joke about winter. I thanked these sisters of my actual client—an older woman from out of state who wanted to buy my cedar chest through Craigslist. I had spent eight hours refinishing the piece and offered to deliver it. The entire process had gone well. It wasn’t until I got back in the car that I counted only forty dollars, not $50.

I didn’t know what to do. We had laughed. I had impressed the sisters: “This chest is so much nicer than the last one I picked up for Sharon.” And again, “It was so generous of you to deliver it for us. I wish all Craigslist deals went like this!” To inquire about 10 measly dollars seemed trivial, even disruptive. It threatened what I had gained from the transaction overall.

The Complexity of Pay

Exchanging money for goods and services turns out to be rather complicated. Certainly, employees receive compensation. Some too much; some too little. Free-lancers, sales associates, and those who depend upon tips may experience less predictability than, say, bank tellers or managers, but everyone perceives a difference between adequate compensation and being short-changed.

Generally speaking, compensation improves as our station improves. More training begets more pay. Specializations and expertise allow us to raise the price tag on the value of products and services. But this is generally speaking. The relationship between pay and worth involves many factors—from attitude to zip code—converting a simple guideline into a complex rubric. Include non-traditional work like selling stuff on Craigslist, and suddenly upward mobility becomes an M. C. Escher staircase.

Consider these examples. Physician pay in New York is a far cry from physician pay in Idaho, because location matters. Demand makes a difference, too. IT professionals might settle for part-time work at Staples while nurses take whatever jobs they want. And popularity? A celebrity gives a one-hour talk for $75,000 while a budding author gets a $20 gas card for travel expenses.

What about the ability to negotiate, the winsomeness to make connections, and the value clients perceive once we’ve delivered the goods? Every one of these variables affect pay.

Then there’s self—worst enemy or greatest advocate depending on how we assign value to tasks God has given us to do. One artist hides finished canvases in a drawer, convinced that no one will ever purchase such rubbish. Another possesses enough carefree confidence to make money on finger paintings.

Yet, even if we believe our work is valuable, it still carries no guarantee of getting paid well. Listen, I liked that antique cedar chest. But I’m an oldest child, a passive-aggressive martyr type who would carry a study group in college while slackers shared the A’s I worked hard for; who would stay late at so many picnics to clean up while other guests went home to PJs and television. My sense of “do unto others” often obligates me to people in strange ways, especially when affirmation is at stake. “After all, what’s 10 bucks? I had fun and Sharon’s really going to like what she got and maybe the chest wasn’t worth my original price anyway … ”

This twisted form of account balancing leads to feeling underpaid and undervalued.

Naming Your Issues before Naming Your Price

The point is, pay is complicated. It’s tethered to justice, communication, childhood, and theology. In our series on Paying Well, Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma describes how the small act of tipping after a meal awakens thoughts in all of these areas. Her fascinating essay highlights the importance of assessing what’s going on inside when a pay exchange arises:

  • Why does this money moment feel awkward?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • How much would I pay for this work if I were the client instead of the provider?

These moments often pass too quickly for adequate answers. Let the client be shrewd, hurried, or imposing, and we’re liable to neglect the questions altogether. In cases where I forgot to state the terms ahead of time, or where assumptions (even culturally normative ones) were made about remuneration only to discover later that the client had other, lesser, ideas in mind, a different question—a clean-up question—must be asked: Am I going to be honest or generous?

I encounter this clean-up question the moment I’ve delivered the service and realize the pay (if, in fact, I got paid) fails to match the time and effort put into it. Acceptable answers? Be honest, or be generous. Either I tell him (kindly) that my work is worth more, or I let it go. If I choose the latter, generosity requires letting go completely. It requires converting my mistake into a gift with zero strings attached. No regret, no bitterness, no grudge.

Dealing with That Cedar Chest

This brings us back to the cedar chest. Would I be honest or generous? When my wife asked how much it sold for, I relayed the story, highlighting the humorous exchange in the garage. Julie saw through my attempt to downplay the situation. “She only paid you $40? Didn’t you tell her $50? Can you call her back? You worked hard on that piece.”

Maybe the sister took advantage. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe I mentioned I’d sell it for $40 if the Craigslist photos turned out to be misleading. Maybe she misheard Sharon and thought she was supposed to pay $40. Or maybe she employed her own definition of getting paid well, skimming $10 off the top as payment for having to go out in the cold and make this exchange with a stranger on her sister’s behalf.

None of these mattered really. There was too much interpersonal capital at stake to go after the missing money. As it stood, I’d be remembered as the nice guy who offered a great deal. That was worth $10.

Getting Paid and Paying Others

I’ve said little about paying others and a lot about getting paid because whatever I understand about paying others stems from my understanding of others paying me. It’s the exploration of personal fears and mistakes and biases that informs how we approach these exchanges. Whether we chicken out or take advantage, understate or oversell, reflection can lead to health, and ultimately to both parties feeling like they gained something.

Maybe that “something” is money. It could easily be another satisfaction, like security or social capital. Regardless, getting paid and paying others is rarely straight-forward. The best approach is to know what the work is worth, to communicate clearly, and to call on honesty or generosity should the deal fall apart. Jesus may ask you to turn the other cheek, but he dislikes bad business, whether you’ve caused it or simply learned to tolerate it. I should know.


Paying Well

After we published a week of content with the theme heading Making Money, we received a message encouraging us to consider the flip side, as well. What about Christians who fail to pay well, who complain about leaving a tip or who balk at paying an honest rate, especially when doing business with other Christians? What does the Bible have to say about this, and what is fair to expect when doing business with Christians and non-Christians alike? Is there a difference? Should there be? What has been your experience? Join us for this series, Paying Well, as we consider personal stories and biblical instruction for leading well as Christians in the world, especially when it comes to determining what to pay.

Featured image by kizzzbeth. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.