Get What You're Worth

“Senior page monkey” Schizohedron has written an excellent post called Tips for Fair Workplace Compensation. It’s not specific to the design industry at all, but I suspect this is something a lot of (so-called) creative workers are especially bad at, as we like to think that our jobs are more fun than other people’s. Dude, your job may be what you like to do, but it’s still a job. Get paid for it.

There are so many good points in there that it’s hard for me to quote anything without just copying and pasting the whole thing, but I’ll limit myself to the rousing finale:

They employ you. They do not own you. They don’t govern the course of your career. Only you can decide when your work and your interests no longer follow the same track. Identifying and accepting this sort of discrepancy is not a mark of failure. I define a failure as someone who neglects to collect every cent of compensation and every hour of time off he or she has earned, who instead works weekends and Federal holidays because they think this will impress their bosses. Don’t work for your boss. Work for your professional development, for the satisfaction of meeting your goals, and for the means to enjoy a comfortable, well-rounded life. Work for yourself.

I am a failure.

I’m pretty good about taking advantage of certain forms of compensation—I always pay into a 401K or similar fund, if there is one, especially if there’s an employer match (and I make monthly deposits into my own IRAs, regardless of whether I have an employer-sponsored retirement account). I’ve signed up for an FSA when it’s available, and spent the money gleefully, and I pounce on any kind of transportation benefits (TransitChek, I love you!). And I always take whatever vacation I get (mind you, two weeks per year is so not enough). These are obvious, clearly defined benefits, which I consider anyone an idiot for not taking advantage of.

What I’m terrible at is maxing out softer benefits, ones that require more discretion or negotiation or discipline. I am terrible about working extra time, for instance. I tend to roll in late, even though my workday starts at ten, and I tend to have hours or even days when I’m just not able to focus, and though I’m always sitting there clicking on something, I’m not getting anything done. It’s on those days—when obviously what I should be doing is saying, “Fuck it, my brain’s not working; I should leave on the dot of six and go to the gym or take a long walk to clear my cache” that I’m most likely to keep clicking away until seven, eight, nine. Sometimes I do finally get something done in those last hours, but then I get home late and fried, stay up even later than usual (I’m rarely in bed before one), wake up cross and unrested, and drag myself to the office fifteen minutes late to start this stupid process again.

It’s dumb, and I know it, but I’ve done it for years. In addition to just being stupid on its own terms, this vicious habit also makes it impossible to tell when I’m really being overworked, and when I should be demanding comp time. And on those rare occasions (like, three, in my lifetime?) when I actually have bothered to discuss comp time with an employer, I’ve never followed up and taken the time off when the crunch was over.

I nickel-and-dime about so many stupid things in my life, while I basically just give my employers hundreds or thousands of dollars a year.

Another thing I’ve never done in my life is negotiate a job offer. I’ve asked questions, asked for clarification, but I’ve never actually made demands—never said, “Sure, I’ll accept the job at this salary if you’ll give me another five days of paid vacation,” or even “I’ll accept the job at less than this salary if you’ll give me another five days of paid vacation,” despite time’s being totally more attractive to me than money. And it doesn’t matter how much I haven’t needed the new job. Even when I essentially have nothing to lose, I just don’t negotiate. I’ve read that this is a classic Girl Thing. We want to get along and be nice, so we don’t ask for stuff we want. Whatever. It’s dumb.

Similarly, I’ve never asked for a raise. I’ve always gotten raises, and because I (obviously) chronically undervalue my time and work, I’ve almost always been pleasantly surprised by those raises. But on the one glaring occasion when I was given what I considered an insulting raise—one so small as to not even cover inflation, on a starting salary that I should have refused in the first place—I didn’t behave any differently than I usually do: a squirmy “Gee, thanks,” and then back to my desk.

I think I’ve taken three sick days in the last ten years.

And then there are personal days, which I don’t think I’ve ever taken one of in my life. What’s a “personal day”? When my dad died last winter, I didn’t go to the office for a week. I did, however, sit at the kitchen table at my parents’ house, typesetting a book about breast cancer. Coworkers delivered stuff to me. I took phone calls. I FTP’d files. I certainly wasn’t working eight-hour days, but I wasn’t on leave, either; this was the week of the transit strike, so nobody was getting much done, anyway. At the time, I was kind of glad to have something to do other than drafting a notice for the paper and trying to help Mom make arrangements. Life stuff is messy and painful; typesetting is straightforward and discrete. Often it’s easier to just work.

But, you know, sometimes you should take a personal day.

Anyway, go read Schizohedron’s post. Print it out and tape it to the fridge. Then start planning your next vacation.

15 thoughts on “Get What You're Worth

  1. Thank you India. I am you. I am now inspired. I will ask for more of everything. And soon. My job was dramatically changed this january. More responsability, a LOT more work, and no compensation what so ever. It has been my intention all the time to negotiate some kind of compensation for this, but now it is already March, and have I done something about it? Nooooooooo …

    I’ll ask for a meeting on monday. And work on my demands this week-end. In between working on the book cover I have to put together in time for a deadline monday.

    That said – we do have a lot of great benefits in Norway. Plenty of vacation time. My problem is that no one else does my job when I’m away, so before I take my vacation I’m working like mad for x number of weeks in advance. The result is of course that I’m unconscious the first two weeks of the vacation, and not able to enjoy it the way I should.

  2. Yes, I know all about that—for the weeks before your vacation, you work tons of unpaid overtime. Then you’re up all night before you’re to leave, because that’s the only time you have in which to pack. You leave the house a mess, even though you hate returning to squalor, because you haven’t got time to deal with it before you go. Then you sit in the plane/train/automobile in a stupor, amazed that you actually made it there. You spend the next two days sleeping.

    Or maybe, if you’re really an idiot, you sit in the plane/train/automobile with your laptop, finishing up that one last project, and then you FTP it from your vacation lodging the next morning.

    One thing I don’t do, at least, is work weekends. Really, I don’t. I might take work home, but it never comes out of my bag, and on Monday I carry it back. Laziness seems to trump dumbness, fortunately.

  3. So far laziness has won this weekend. The DVD with the files for the cover has made it to my desk, but has not yet seen the inside of my Mac.

    Oh. And I bought a new dress today. A great dress. That I really didn’t need.

  4. I’ve successfully negotiated for an extra week of vacation in each of my last few jobs. It’s an easy negotiation to make, most bosses are willing to give it to you (esp if the company standard is a measly 2 weeks for the first X number of years), and even if the HR dept won’t approve it, you can still get a verbal agreement from your boss to take the time “off the books.” It doesn’t cost the company much and it goes a long way towards making me feel happy about my jobs.

    Also, I find that I like the bosses best who insist on a relatively normal work schedule (9 to 5, 8 to 5:30, whatever — the important thing is a hard stop at a reasonable, pre-6pm time). It makes it a lot easier for me to fight my own tendencies towards undisciplined time use. And when I and the people I work with are fighting that same fight together, it’s a lot easier to use time more efficiently, and not let work take over our entire lives. The flip side is that I think teams that work like this actually accomplish a lot more than those where people can and do stay late. That’s because, as you’ve discovered, when you can stay late and there’s an expectation that you will, there’s less pressure to get work done quickly and efficiently. So, finding a workplace that is like that is important.

  5. Well, aren’t you a goody two shoes!

    I’d imagine that there’s much more incentive to exhibit such smart, sensible behavior when one is married and has a kid. I used to work at places where very few of my colleagues were married, and almost none had children. Now, as I—and, more importantly, my peers—get older, it’s shifting so that most of my coworkers have families waiting for them at home. My current workplace starts clearing out around 4:00; some may take work home, but they never seem to stay at the office late.

    The bosses I’ve had who were particular about working hours were only particular about the starting hour; they never quailed at someone’s staying late. In fact, one of these tried to use my hours as a serving suggestion for the rest of the staff. She actually had the nerve to propose this in a staff meeting, whereupon I angrily stated that I worked late for my own benefit, and that if she was going to use my behavior to browbeat other people, I would start leaving at five-thirty sharp. And I did do that for a while, with the assistance of a colleague who would say, at 5:29 pm, “Let’s go.” There was a strong incentive, in that by complying I then got to walk across town with him and talk with one of the most engaging people I know.

    Such incentives aren’t easy to find.

  6. I, too, am a failure, India.

    One representative proof, culled from many: After meeting with a potential client for a free initial consultation, I have been known to offer (by phone and written report) the recommendation that “you don’t really need an archival consultant. You’re clearly on the right track, and there’s some good help available for nothin’ at [ _____ ]. As for that grant proposal, if you read the guidelines carefully, you’ll see that a consultant’s services are not required. If I were you, I’d make a phone call right now to one of the funding agency’s program officers . . . ” and here follows a lengthy disquisition on how to milk the maximum from the folks you want to touch for cash.

    Now if clients were queuing up for appointments with me, this behavior might might sense within a larger ‘good-will’ strategy. As things now stand, though, about the best I can say is, “Folks sure do like me.” Right. Wonder why . . . ?

  7. Way to sell your services, Sheila! You go, grrrl!

    Yeah, Schizo’s post addresses this stuff in employee-employer terms, but the basic principle—demanding full compensation for the work that you do—most certainly applies to consultants and other freelancers, as well.

    I’ve become more convinced year after year that underpricing your work or doing things for free “just as a favor” not only screws your bottom line but also encourages clients to treat you like crap. You’d think that if you’re doing something pro bono, the client would be extra nice to you, try to make the project as painless as possible, and act grateful when it’s done. Shockingly often, however, instead they assume that if you can afford to give the work away, it must not require much effort or skill in the first place. Because they don’t feel pressure to get their money’s worth, they leap into the project with less planning, less preparation, and less willingness to do their share of the labor. Then they start piling on change requests, resulting in a lot of last-minute stress for you and feelings of dissatisfaction all around.

    Not only does the client get what he or she pays for, but also you get treated like what you got paid. Charge a real fee, and they’ll treat you with more respect.

    I’m not saying that I actually try to apply this principle. But it’s what I’ve come to believe.

  8. First off, I am deeply gratified to read that my piece was of help. When I saw the title of your most recent post, I thought, “That can’t refer to my piece, can it?”

    India, you are quite far from a failure. Same goes for your commentators. Failures don’t post the sort of insightful, from-the-trenches tutorials and experiences that you have offered to your readers. And they don’t list a glorious column of their design work down the side of their blog. I wouldn’t have written my piece if I didn’t have to fight against, or recover from, the same impulses in my employment history. So either none of us is a failure, or we’re all kindred spirits in realizing we can do more to get all that we have earned. Probably both.

    The fine comments above have made me realize another point. Employers can have a way of putting us off guard, particularly when money or time is on the table. One can get the feeling — during a salary negotiation, in the first few weeks of work, when receiving annual reviews — that if one doesn’t take what’s offered, it will somehow disappear . . . that the money will change or diminish, or the job will evaporate, that making waves now will cost us down the line. It won’t. If we’ve gotten to any of these stages, we’re in — the company needs us to the point where they are willing to part with money to have our services. We are conditioned to feel gratitude for what we get during such transactions, and the emotion or relief can obscure the cold objectivity we might need to scrutinize the offer. It’s never a sin to tell an employer in these moments that we need an hour, a night, or a weekend to review the deal if we feel like we’re on the spot. By telling them we need time to think, we make an impression — that we care enough about our futures to analyze an offer rationally, even if we end up accepting it with few or no additions. That’s a moment when we have the initiative, and as uncomfortable as it can feel, it’s up to us to exploit.

    Again, I’m glad to read that my piece resonates with people, and thanks so much for your praise. Please send my link to anyone the essay might benefit.

  9. You thought, “That can’t refer to my piece, can it?” because I slapped such a clunkily worded title on it. You’re a damn good writer, in addition to being obviously more professional and better organized. I was reading the new favorites page over there earlier today; thanks for adding that.

    I object, however, to your describing yourself as “a late-thirties graphic designer.” We are approximately the same age, which I prefer to think of as my “late mid-thirties.” Please. Don’t rush me.

  10. Ok. Didn’t find time to ask for a meeting today. Had too much work to do. But I have started a list (quite short so far.) after I figured it would be nice to know excatly what I want to achieve before I start asking for it. In my case it isn’t vacation time. I have plenty of that already. A raise would be nice, but that is almost imposible in the company that I work. However getting some benefits should be doable. Just have to figure out what sort of benefits.

  11. The benefit I want most (after an additional six weeks’ vacation, and tuition for any educational program I choose) is a tea trolley. Daily, four o’clock, with black tea, green tea, sandwiches, and petits fours. Is that so much to ask? The trolley doesn’t even have to have wheels; it could just sit in one place. I wouldn’t mind walking over to it.

  12. @India: My mom has fond memories of a Horn & Hadart pastry cart they used to wheel around one of her offices, either McGraw-Hill or New York Life, in the Fifties. At least if I had to get up to go to a stationary cart, I’d burn a little of the sugar off each trip. If the cart came to me, I’d be like Jabba the Hutt in sight of a month.

    Thanks so much for your kind words on my writing. Of all my skills, it’s the one I most wish I could exercise full time. Also, big thanks for linking my favorites. I added a couple more since last night, which specifically address my layoff and work conditions, so folks have a perspective on what motivated me to write my piece.

    As for my age-range nomenclature, what I should do is engage the services of a cartoonist, have myself caricatured a la the old B&W Max Fleischer or Leon Schlesinger cartoons, post the illo atop the blog, and list myself as a “Late Thirties graphic design(er)”!

  13. Following up late on this, but I just want to point out: I’m no goody two shoes. My work habits can be as compulsive and sloppy as anyone. The fact that I’m married with kids gives me an incentive to curtail my work hours but I don’t view it as a free pass in the workplace. You single folks have just as much right to a life as I do. We all have to make an effort to take it though.

    And, I don’t think you should feel like a failure if you work long hours. It’s really your boss’s failure. A good boss would be the one to say, at 5:29, “OK, let’s get out of here.” In fact, one of my previous bosses had a tradition where every day everyone on staff would play a Unreal Tournament together at 4:45 each afternoon. In addition to blowing off steam it also forced everyone to get their work done early. After 20-30 minutes of blasting away at virtual versions of each other, we’d all take off. Now, that won’t work in every workplace, but it had a sort of twisted genius in this case.

  14. Man, all I can say to that is, “California.”

    “Unreal Tournament.” Honestly. Where do you guys get these ideas?

    Which brings to mind another question: To what extent is the (over)work culture cultural? It’s often seemed to me, when I’ve visited the Bay Area, that people don’t work as much as they do in New York. Like, there isn’t a culture of being busy, busy, busy—“How are you?” “Oh, I’m really busy.” And there is a culture of, “Let’s go take the dogs to the park! Let’s drive down to Blah Blah Point and have a barbecue! Let’s . . .” I don’t know. Invention fails me. But my impression is that people are a lot less likely to work long hours, and that it’s kind of a cultural thing. Am I hallucinating? Is it just my friends? Is it just that whenever I go there, I’m on vacation, and everyone leaves work early to hang out with me?

  15. Partly we are all just taking it easy so we can hang out with you, yes. But I think there is a cultural difference. It’s one of the reasons I like living here.

    There’s been a big shift in the past 5 years too. In 2000, it was always busy busy busy here, too. Now it seems clear that more people are interested in drawing clear boundaries around their work lives. And others are pretty accepting of that.

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