In my early days at Eastman Chemical, in the late 1960’s, I learned a lot of practical stuff about chemical plant construction, and a little common sense, from a pipe-fitting foreman, Mr. Hugh Wilkerson, a man with probably 35 years seniority over me. Hugh’s superintendent was Mr. Bill Kappa. One hard and fast rule at Eastman, a very conservative and paternalistic company, was that our salaries and our raises were to be considered confidential information between us and the company and not revealed to other employees under any circumstances. Hugh and I were discussing that policy one day and he said, “I’ll tell you how Mr. Kappa explained it to me. He said that if two people swap salary information, one of them is going to be unhappy, and he doesn’t want anybody unhappy.” I should say that the policy on pay secrecy didn’t have anything to do with keeping women and minorities in their places because there were few if any.
Let me digress a moment and share another bit of wisdom from Hugh. He told me once not to work myself to death for “The Eastman” as it was called in the local community. He told me I could work myself to death, die on the job, and be carried out the gate on a stretcher and everybody would say, “There goes ole Darryl. He was a good man.” And that would be the last time I would be thought of in the work place. My absence would be like the absence created by removing ones finger from a bucket of water. I didn’t die on the job, but I would say that pretty much describes the impact of my retirement at the end of 1999.
But back to the subject at hand. Unequal pay is a reality in most situations, consistent with the fact that, during a 34 year career in industry, I rarely observed instances of equal work being done by two persons. That was true even in situations where compensation was exactly the same, hourly chemical operators at the same pay grade and same length of service, office assistants at the same pay grade and same length of service, janitorial workers at the same pay grade and same length of service, etc. In anything other than routine production line work with little or no human interaction, and strict adherence to standards and procedures with little room for creativity, every individual brings unique contributions to his or her job and, as a result, contributes at a different level from others with the same assignment. And over time, rates of compensation diverge and opportunities for advancement fall unequally based on management perceptions of those contributions and the abilities of individuals to take on additional responsibility.
Of course management is sometimes wrong, and sometimes those management perceptions are colored by personal or institutional biases based on race or gender. I would say such biases were fairly common and sometimes openly expressed when I started my career in the 1960’s but completely suppressed by the time I retired at the turn of the century. Any expressed biases in the 1980’s and 1990’s were completely opposite those of the 1960’s as the company endeavored to get more women and minorities in well-paying positions of responsibility.
This is not to say that I had or have a great deal of confidence in the ability of management to accurately assess the values, in the short term, of the contributions of individual employees. I came to agree with Dr. Deming that many of the perceived differences in performances of individual employees are due to pure chance or uncontrollable circumstances or to assignments, some easy winners and some doomed to failure. Still, there is validity in consistent high ratings over time by a variety of supervisors, in a variety of jobs, and that is what was normally required at Eastman for steady advancement.
So, since the idea of “equal work” is pure fiction, at least for professionals, we might as well forget any idea of “equal pay for equal work.” Even “work” itself, except for manual labor, piecework, and other easily observable and measurable effort is difficult to define. During my career, I normally “went to work” at 8 am and “got off work” at 5 pm. But, many of my best ideas and most productive efforts came during the drive to and from work or during a good long run before supper or perhaps in bed just before drifting off to sleep. (No cell phones or email or home computer during most of that time.) I might have stood around the coffee pot eating donuts most of the day, looking totally non- productive, and then had a real breakthrough idea during my run. As a matter of fact, I recall one of my managers once telling me in a performance review session that, though I seemed to be getting good results, I never seemed to be doing anything. (That was before computers. Once we got computers, I was always busy.)
Maybe we need to strive for equal pay for equal experience, wisdom, knowledge, skills, effort, responsibility, and results. I suppose that would be fair, even if impossible. If we fail, we can at least be thankful for this: “…life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” – Luke 12:15b (Revised to omit 15a on greed).
Hmmm. That is a similar theme to that of the advice I got from Hugh Wilkerson. If I hadn’t followed it, I could be richer and deader now.