Why do we consider some work more valuable than others?

I’m not really talking about the old ‘garbage collector/doctor’ debate here (although, let’s be honest, if all the sanitation workers stopped performing their roles, a lot more people would notice than on the day the podiatrists played golf).

For some reason we’ve decided that some work is high end, some work is low end, and people need to be treated differently depending on which they happen to be doing.

And that sucks.

Since there isn’t time to get into the history of devaluing labour, let’s talk about the situation a lot of managers find themselves in – valuing work appropriately when under budgetary constraints.

I’ve never had a conversation with a business owner about hiring or staffing that didn’t involve a concern about cost. And that makes sense. You can’t burn more money than you make for very long before you start to run into some serious problems.

But just because you have a certain budget for work doesn’t mean the work is worth that amount and no more.

And it definitely doesn’t mean that the person DOING that work is only worth whatever price you have decided on.

Never forget, in most cases you’re going to get what you pay for, and people are going to respond to you based on how you show you show you value them.

The Bias Trap

One of the reasons this is challenging, and the reason so many companies have dissatisfied employees, is that managers – whether they are in between the rank and file and the C-suite, or owners building their own initial teams – is that we all tend to value our OWN contributions more than we value the contributions of others.

Then you add to that the very real and very reasonable fear for the future and growth of your company or team. It’s really easy to feel like someone you are paying or whose work you are responsible for is out to take you for a ride, and you have to make sure they stay in line.

But that’s a very dangerous fallacy. And it almost always backfires.

Instead of making the grave mistake of thinking “anyone is replaceable, they should be grateful for the opportunity” you can make even work that is seen as low-level, mundane and replaceable something that your team member can take pride in and feel good about.

And if you don’t – well then guess what?

They WILL take you for a ride.

And you’ll deserve it.

Once more for those in the back:

Money Comes First and That’s OK.

People need to work to live, and passion doesn’t pay rent. Arbitrarily deciding that the lowest possible dollar figure is the best rate to pay for a given role, or worse, trying to find a way to get the work done for free is both short-sighted and ultimately damaging.

Unpaid internships, ever-expanding job descriptions or, and I feel dirty even writing this, payment in “exposure” or “experience,” are all horrifyingly common, and ultimately exploitative.

People are hurting for jobs right now, which is why companies can get away with it – but never forget – just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD and if you DO you’re an asshole.

Look at the living wage in your area, that should be your minimum for new, entry level hires that you intend to train and develop and, as soon as possible, pay more.

Experience costs more. Don’t try to bargain-hunt team members then complain when your team is unproductive, unmotivated and irresponsible.

No one cares about your business as much as you do and THEY HAVE NO REASON TO.

If you can’t afford to pay someone fairly, find other ways to get things done. Maybe you automate more of your processes, maybe you spend more time hustling yourself to have more cash flow, maybe you decide to offer a partnership stake to another key player to help grow more quickly, maybe you outsource elements of the role to freelancers for a while.

Don’t hire until you can afford to pay fairly. Don’t decide what is FAIR based on what you want to spend.

Now, this doesn’t mean cash in hand is the sole way to show that you value work – it’s the best and most important, but you can ALSO show that you value work by how you manage, train, talk to, and engage with the people you hire.

Please note, that doing any of the below when you are underpaying for work will perhaps improve things, but until you pay decently for ALL roles, they are Band-Aids, not solutions

Once Money is Out Of The Way…

Sometimes you are going to have non-negotiable constraints that are either handed down from above or are quite literally the extent of what is available on what you can PAY someone, and in a lot of cases, that is going to be based more on ‘we can’t spend more than this and continue operating’ rather than ‘this is how important this is to our company, and commensurate with the skills, experience, and potential inputs of the human we are going to hire.’

(Here is where we get into one of the benefits of being a start up or new business – you have a lot more flexibility, and if you’re the boss, you get to make all the calls.)

So here are some suggestions for how you can show you value someone and their work that aren’t wage increases.

First things first – be upfront about the fact that the wage sucks. Don’t pretend it’s a good deal; be upfront about the rate of pay and the reason for it. That conversation might go like this:

“So – the rate for this role is on the low side of industry standards for the moment. This is because we’re in our third year of operation, and to be able to grow to a point where we are sustainable this is a hard limit for now… so here are the ways we’re going to try and make this worthwhile anyway.”

(Also – when you are starting a hiring process – make the range you are going to pay evident from the beginning. Your time is valuable, so is everyone else’s – if it’s not enough for someone to consider, let them know before they apply.)

Then you can try any and all of the following:

Flexible schedule.  It’s not totally unreasonable to take a slightly lower wage to be able to set your own schedule. You have to mean it though – and be willing to work around your hire’s other priorities. If they can’t do Monday mornings, or need to leave at 4 every day, so be it.

Access to company resources.  If you have company accounts to software, services, and professionals, offer them to team members at no cost to them. Costs are negligible once you HAVE the services, and it can help hires pursue their passion projects as well.

Clear, well defined growth plans (with dollar amounts attached).  Before someone accepts a low offer, let them know exactly how they can help the company grow enough to earn more. Make this a priority, and make sure they have access to the metrics you will be using to determine if they hit targets.

Training and development. For entry level team members, or team members without traditional degrees, an active and aggressive skill-development program can make a lower wage worthwhile (for a time). Mentors are hard to come by for a lot of people. So take a few hours each week to train and teach your team members skills they would find hard to come by outside of a workplace.

Public praise systems. Make sure you have procedures in place to publicly describe the successes and accomplishments of your team members. Not just internal, either, they should be able to get reviews and endorsements from you they can use elsewhere.

Non-wage related benefits.  If at this moment, you can’t afford to pay X amount per hour more, but you DO have a bit of wiggle room financially or less consistently, have a discussion about what fringe benefits will help your team members anyway. Transit passes, gift cards for gas or grocery, work lunches, event tickets – that kind of thing. It doesn’t take the place of a fair wage – but it can at least show that you are interested in their well-being. If you are American – the best health insurance you can negotiate.

And of course – you need to manage well, and build a team that meshes well together so that going to work every day isn’t an exercise in misery. No amount of money or perks will make up for terrible management or a toxic work environment.

At the end of the day, your team is going to respond to how you value them, and how you compensate them plays a huge role in that.

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