What constitutes a fair wage? Fast food workers have been holding demonstrations demanding $15 an hour. A young CEO in Seattle recently decided that every one of his employees deserved a minimum of $70,000 a year as that was what he considered to be a living wage for that city. The news is filled with editorials and opinions about income inequality and a fair salary. How should a Christian businessman respond? How much should we pay?
It is one thing to philosophically discuss the principles behind wage structure in America, it is an entirely different thing to sign paychecks. I am a small businessman with 5 employees who depend on me for their livelihoods. The realization that 5 families rely on me every day of their lives is a sobering one. If I desire to do well in this life, if I believe that I will one day answer to my Creator for my actions, how I treat and what I pay my employees is important.
While this is one of the most challenging aspects of my job the topic was completely unaddressed in my education. My training was extensive- five years of undergraduate study, 4 years of medical school and 3 years of Family Practice specialty training, yet not one hour was devoted to the topic. Nobody taught me how to be a manager of people or how to compensate them for their labors. I was forced to find the answer on my own. I ultimately turned to Scripture, following the principles in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where He said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”
The application of this truth has caused me to consistently pay my employees a fair and competitive wage and to treat them well and with respect. It has not caused me to dramatically overpay far above market rates, for that is not how I would truly want to be treated or what I would expect from an employer. If I was an employee being paid $70,000 for a job that required little training or experience and for which typical compensation was $25,000, my $70,000 salary would feel more like charity than earnings. While the extra money would be nice, in my heart it would feel wrong. To apply the Golden Rule in the other direction, I would want my employer to pay me what I had earned and to keep the profits he had earned, regardless of how high they were!
To ensure my employees are paid fairly I intermittently survey the salaries offered for similar positions in the community. As I have very high standards the individuals who work for me are typically high performers, so I consistently pay them at or slightly above the top rate for their positions. As a result they know they are paid well for the jobs they do. They also know that they have chosen their profession and the salary range it offers and do not expect to be paid the same as others whose jobs require a greater skill set or more extensive training.
A conversation I had with my current nurse shortly after she joined my office perfectly illustrates the concept of a fair wage. She is a remarkable employee who clearly possesses the ability to move beyond office nursing and become an RN working in a hospital, a job with a pay level nearly double her current income. When I praised her performance and asked her why she didn’t go further with her training she replied that additional training would mean less time with her children so she decided that this was what she wanted to do. She was exactly where she wanted to be and comfortable with the salary that came along with it. She is so comfortable that with her last two pay increases she told me, “You don’t need to do that. You pay me enough.”
My nurse has integrity and a strong work ethic. She works hard for me and does her best for me and the patients we serve. Her effort is not based on her salary. Her desire to do her job well is based on her character and not her compensation. She is not looking for charity or a handout or to be paid more than she has earned. In her attitude and her efforts she earns not only her pay but my respect. Because I pay her fairly and treat her well, I have earned her respect as well.
While some could look at the difference between what I make and what she makes and proclaim, "Income inequality!" those who took the time to look closely would see two people who worked together as a team, valued one another highly and respected one another. Two people who understood the truth that we have equal value as people, which matters much more than our pay rates.
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