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How Do You Pay Someone When Money Isn’t the Right Standard? December 10, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Trick question, you may respond.  Money, and especially more money, is always an appropriate reward.  Well, for some people (I am looking at you, Zuckerberg), that may be true.  And every year Forbes magazine lists the top 400 richest people.  Who wouldn’t want to be on a worldwide top 400 list of just about anything?

It has been reported that Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots football team, is unlikely to make any of the monetary incentives in his contract this year.  While Tom is paid handsomely by most people’s standards, he is relatively underpaid in comparison to the universe of NFL quarterbacks.  Brady has also in the past accepted below market deals with the expectation that what he was giving up might help build a better team.

Which leads me to the question of pay in general, particularly in the tech sector.  At some Silicon Valley companies, the average pay is well into the six figures, and options and other incentives add still more to the take.  Granted, in Silicon Valley, costs have more than kept pace with income growth, so that whole microcosm might be no more than a Red Queen’s Race.  But surely in all echelons of productive society there are people who say, “My material wants are more than met.”  So how do we compensate such people?

In fact, we tend to think of money not only in compensation terms, but also in motivation terms.  Is there a point at which another ten percent raise won’t deliver a commiserate increase in motivation?  I bet there is.  So what do we do about it?

I have made some money in my career, mostly through a series of decent but unexceptional jobs, plus adjunct teaching, plus freelance writing and consulting.  I also live relatively modestly.  To be fair, I don’t deprive myself, but I only recently gave up a 19-year old daily use car; it simply started every single time, and its extraordinary maintenance needs were trivial.  My sports car days are in the past (yes, I once owned a classic Corvette), and today my choice of a ride is much more pragmatic.

So in seeking employment, I don’t feel the need to maximize my monetary take.  Recently I suggested my high water mark as a goal to a recruiter at a Silicon Valley company.  She chuckled involuntarily, and replied, “I’m sure we can do much better than that.”  (Nevertheless, I didn’t get the job).

I have created a fictional character, a minor employee in a small tech company, who foils a multi-billion dollar scam and rescues the fair maiden, both of which go a long way toward saving the company.  In the sequel, the company owner is exiting, and struggles with how to appropriately reward this character as he was being declared surplus to future needs.  I devise a cop-out, in which the character gets enough money for a sabbatical, along with a modest annuity for future material needs.

As a society, we are (somewhat) striving to provide equal pay for equal work, and I think that’s mostly a good thing.  But I think there’s a step beyond that, and that is an appropriate reward for a job well done.  That may not be money.  In some cases, it may be more vacation or sabbatical, or it may be something more creative.  The problem is that such solutions once again give those who are able to negotiate a distinct advantage over those who can’t.

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