Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Praise or Dollars

Back in 1981,  TBG and I received our evaluations and raises on the same day.  He, working at Goldman Sachs (when it was an admirable place of employment), earned 10 times what I did at the hospital as a social worker.  We explained it thusly - HE was greed; I was social conscience.  It made for a perfectly lovely lifestyle.  We had enough to live on and extra to give away.  Good causes and dear friends and family were the beneficiaries of our munificence, and we smiled and expected nothing except the same in return.  It worked for us.

I always expected to live modestly.  Growing up, I knew no one who had more than anyone else.  My town was solidly middle-class, and while some had less no one had lots.  My dad owned his own business, so I never heard discussions of evaluations or compensation reviews or bonuses denied or delivered.  As long as people were buying his wedding dresses we had food on the table.  When they stopped, the business folded, but I was in college at that time so I missed the conversations about being an employee as he found other ways to support 3 kids and a wife.  I went into review season in 1981 without preparation.

I'd been disappointed before in the matter of raises; my first job out of graduate school was with an agency headed by a man who ended up in prison for embezzlement.  His assurance that my 1% raise was what my colleagues had received was shown to be a lie by lunchtime - his secretary revealed that her raise was 3% and that the assistant director's salary bump was 7%.  Of course, he was sleeping with the AD, so that may have entered into it. I was planning to leave the job a few months later, so I didn't complain.  The annoyance remained.

In 1981, though, I was working for a well-respected institution which had resources adequate to compensate its employees fairly.  Or so I thought.  Clearly, Goldman, Sachs & Co. had no restrictions on the number of dollars they were free to dispense to their favored employees, of whom my dear husband was one.  We were looking forward to a wonderful holiday season, financed by our employers.

We arrived home from work at the same time.  Zanner, our old friend, was waiting for us in our living room.  We were frowning when we walked through the doors.

Why?  He'd gotten a 30% raise on an already enormous salary, but no one had said a word about his performance.  The money spoke for the firm.  I had gotten a 3% raise on a miniscule salary, but I had heard glowing words and high praise from my supervisor.  I was poor but knew I'd been doing good work.  He was rich but knew not what his superiors thought.  We were both uncomfortable.
I felt under-valued.  He did too.  The words I heard, while thoughtful and kind, did not make up for the fact that I could not live the life-style I loved without my husband's contribution.  Sure, we had a joint bank account and all our money was considered our money, but most of me wanted to be an equal contributor.  A smaller piece of me was happy to spend what he earned, don't get me wrong.  But most of me knew that the inherent inequality of our incomes was bothersome.

He was delighted to have enough to pay down some of our mortgage and take a great vacation and help out his sister while feeling unloved and disrespected at the same time.  He wondered if anyone noticed the changes he'd implemented and the good hires he'd made.  He didn't know if his work was valued or if he, himself, was, either. 

And so, sitting at the dinner table, he looked at me and said, "I'd have taken less money and more commentary. You are so lucky! You know you are doing well."

I could only smile.  I think that I would've been very happy to have received a 30% increase. I would have managed to convince myself that they loved me because they were paying me what they thought I deserved.  My supervisor had assured me that if more money had been available I would have received it..... but I knew he wasn't talking about 30% more money.
When I hear about the discrepancies between the pay of CEO's and those on the line, when I listen to NPR recounting the bonus amounts dispensed on Wall Street, when I think about the salaries our teachers and our fire fighters draw, I go back to my dining room table on that wintry day 30 some years ago.

Some things never change.

What to do?  The only thing we can do.  Take some time this holiday season to write and tell a teacher or a social worker or a nurse or a police officer just how important she is to you.  Hug a crossing guard as you thank him for keeping your kids safe as they cross the street.  Remind the school secretary that her cheery greeting makes your morning more complete. 

It's not much, but it's something.


  1. Goldman Sachs could seriously use TBG's humanizing influence again.

    And isn't it the most wonderful thing to be able to be generous when we find ourselves flush? I've known that experience a couple of times. When I miss having more than enough, I find that it isn't the moment of walking into a store and knowing I can buy anything within reason that I think I want; that thrill lasted about three trips to the stores and/or about five minutes after I got home with the loot. What I miss is being able to say, "I believe I can help with that," when someone I love or a cause I believe in stumbles into a tight spot. That, and being able to surprise a loved one with something that really will enrich their life (rather than just add to their accumulation of stuff).

    I'll be passing out the praise right and left this year. Here's some: You've had a hell of a year putting out great writing in tough circumstances. I'm so glad you do it.

    All I would add to the to-do list is to find ways to contribute to peaceful movements that promote real living wages for Americans, jobs that allow us dignity and hope, and social conscience in the marketplace and in the government.

    And peace on earth.

  2. Or just say EFF IT and have a mimosa waiting for you on your desk when you walk in to work the next day...

    That may or may not have happened this morning. I can neither confirm nor deny.

  3. I'm liking Little Cuter's idea. After being at different places in my career, I've come to realize that no matter how hard you work, the boss' are going to reward their favorites. It totally sucks, but it's the way it is. So I have said eff it and I do my job and go home. I do go above and beyond anymore. I work to live; not live to work. I have three children and my family is what's most important to me. If something doesn't get done at the office, I do it tomorrow. I got tired of beating myself up to get work done and at the end of the day, it didn't really matter.

    AB, on a more serious note... you are right about truly thanking our teachers, officers and others that do so much with so little. I will make sure to put a heartfelt thank you in my girl's teachers presents.

    Megan xxx

  4. There was recently a discussion on one of my favorite parenting blogs about gifts for teachers--what, how much, whether to gift at all, etc. I mentioned in my comment that I like to give something small if I can think of something that would be particularly appropriate or useful but I hate giving for the sake of it--another candle or bottle of lotion is not necessary, in my mind. But I did also mention that at the end of last school year I did something I've never done before--I sat down and wrote each teacher a letter. It was a year of exceptional growth for both of my boys and I felt strongly that they were lucky to be placed with their respective teachers. In each letter I pointed out specific areas that we noticed the boys had grown, and thanked them for creating an environment for learning, fun and kindness in their classrooms. I CC'd their directors on each letter and handed them out on the last day. Both teachers called in tears to thank me for the letters, and said it was the nicest gift they could have ever received. Directors at both school thanked me for the positive review on their teachers. I have now committed to doing the same for each and every teacher that has an impact on my boys from here on out. I happen to believe that most teachers are grossly underpaid, I don't have control over their paychecks, but I can sincerely thank them for having a positive impact on my childrens' lives.

  5. This is such a relevant and good post. A positive word can do so much. Sometimes as supervisors we are so limited in the compensation we can give, but a written statement of appreciation can mean a lot.


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