Thursday, July 12, 2007

Do the right thing?

Here's a question for you moralisers out there. It boils down to should you prefer justice?

What I mean is, should you prefer justice over legality or morality? This is a consideration in many areas, and I generally believe you should. For instance, it is illegal to smoke the weed, but it is not just -- in my view -- for someone to arrogate the right to tell me whether I can harm myself by smoking the weed. So I say that I should prefer what is right over what someone else thinks should be legal, and smoke it.

So to the question. Here's the background. I have a client that I've been working for for two years. When I first took them on, they were good payers. Not as good as they could be -- other offices of the same firm pay much better -- but better than average. They paid $45 an hour, and I signed an agreement with them to provide services at that rate.

So I asked for a payrise to $50 an hour. Had I not signed the agreement, I would have simply written to tell them I was increasing my fees. It's certainly not unreasonable to do so, and an 11% increase is not excessive. It is barely more than real inflation (by which I mean the inflation I actually see in prices, not the rise in the CPI, which is rigged to make inflation lower by not correctly reflecting common purchasing choices).

They said no, citing the agreement in an oblique way.

So here's the question: should I make them pay it anyway by padding my invoices? I keep scrupulous records of hours worked. Let's say I do 18 hours' work for this client in a month. If I billed them for 20, this would have the same effect as a rise in fees.

Clearly, it's not ethical in a strict sense to do what I'm suggesting, but I argue that it is the right thing to do on the basis of justice. It is not equitable to refuse to renegotiate a contract after two years. By presenting me with the choice of continuing with it or having to give up the income from this client, the client uses its greater economic power to impose an inequitable settlement on me.

But do you agree? Either way, give your reasons in the comments.

I think this is a broadly interesting question because you can -- and I do -- argue that justice trumps the law. If the law is not just, a citizen cannot consider themselves bound by it. Of course, the danger in this thinking is that the citizen simply decides in their own interest what is "just". This is, after all, how the powerful decide what is equitable, and we do not accept it from them. But we do accept that justice trumps the law in some cases: jury nullification is the clearest example. I can think of others: if a person harmed your child, and was acquitted on a technicality -- purely on a matter of procedure, a poorly completed warrant, say -- who would deny that you have the right to punish that person yourself? I would not hesitate to break their legs if I thought I could get away with it, and I am generally law abiding (and respect the law).

30 Comments:

At 2:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got a pay raise. To $14.64/hr.
I don't think I can answer your question with a straight face.

A

 
At 2:47 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Try to ignore the figures. Remember that I freelance. No holiday pay; no sick pay; no overtime; and I don't get fulltime hours most of the time. And without wishing to be rude, my job is considered to be (marginally) more skilled than yours. You'll make much, much more when you are designing websites for a living.

 
At 2:52 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

how many years was the contract for?

was there a time stipulation?

 
At 2:58 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

It's openended.

 
At 2:59 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

time is money.

life is short.

pad the bill.

...

they don't like it?

they can shop elsewhere.

is that what you want to hear, Mr. Squirrel?

 
At 3:05 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

I'm not looking for affirmation. I'm interested in what people have to say.

 
At 3:28 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

if you're not gonna work slower, then it would be wrong to charge them more unless they agree to your new hourly rate (regardless of whether the contract doesn't specify it).

because essentially you're justifiably raising your prices which is not specifically excluded by the contract.

but if you work slower, i'd say that you haven't cheated them at all.

if you simply pad the bill without spending any extra time, you're a cheat.

working slower isn't cheating.

it's a valid moral loophole.

 
At 3:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With holiday and sick pay I make 16.91/hr. Then there's the issue of health insurance.

;-)

Anyway, what do I think about padding the bill? I tend to feel that it's much better to not do anything that could bite you in the butt later when it comes to work situations, but I'm not against evening the score, so to speak, in certain situations.

When a holiday is coming up I let my people work more hours on other days so that they still get the same pay. Technically, I'm not supposed to do that, especially if I really don't need them, which is sometimes the case, but the place won't let me hire people full-time because they don't want to pay out the fringes, so I do what I can to minimize the effect of holidays without pay.

A

 
At 4:06 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

A: so I do what I can

don't we all.

anyway, Zen, if you want a good couple of thought provoking laughs, check out the two YouTube videos in my latest megablog post about your money ethics question.

the art auction scene is almost as funny as the revolution one -- but the latter takes a little longer to watch.

 
At 6:57 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sed:

So here's the question: should I make them pay it anyway by padding my invoices?

It's my opinion that rightness is more important than technicality; the real question is "what is right"?

It depends upon your sense of integrity. The contract is open-ended. In my view, there are two choices. They've said they plan to hold you to your word. You can continue working for the agreed-upon rate, or inform them that you're unable to continue working for that rate and must renegotiate a new contract or take your services elsewhere. Would that be a bluff?

Padding invoices is... tacky at best, I think it's below you. You will, absolutely, proceed as fits your nature and asking on this blog is a somewhat silly bit of woolgathering. Introspection and value-weighing's the approach.

 
At 8:53 pm, Blogger Sour Grapes said...

On the particular point, you sought to renegotiate the agreement and didn't receive what you wanted, so now you plan to cheat the company to achieve the same end. That's clearly dishonest. If you're not satisfied with the agreement the ethical move is to withdraw. You argue:

"Of course, the danger in this thinking is that the citizen simply decides in their own interest what is "just". This is, after all, how the powerful decide what is equitable, and we do not accept it from them."

In fact, this is no more than you're contemplating doing yourself. You claim it's to achieve justice, I say it's to get more money.

On the general point, it's desperately unsafe to depart from the law in order to ensure justice, because as you hint, and as Thomas More made clear in Bolt's play, "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"

One man's justice may be another man's knees, or worse. We have laws in the first place principally to avoid that sort of situation. I'm surprised to see you advocating it now, just because your wallet is a little thin.

 
At 2:51 am, Anonymous high-in-the-sky said...

Just 'render unto caeser'. They probably would have to justify an increase in your hourly rate to someone in finance, who would cite why's and wherefore's to be satisfied before they could pay you more, but who wouldn't bat an eyelid at invoices for x hours at a rate in the old band.

Written as a freelancer with a strict code of self-conduct who has had some of the mysteries of life explained to him.

 
At 9:22 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

AH, you do not consider whether it is just that I should have more money. That's the first question. My point was that using a legal technicality to frustrate justice is not something that the ethically minded should condone. I argue that it is not wrong to cheat someone who will not agree to do you justice, just as it would not be wrong to disobey a law that is not just. The question is, AH, do you think it is just that someone refuses to give you more money after two years? I find it hard to believe that you feel it is just to reward good service with a paycut! And I'm surprised you support a company's standing on a "legality" to fuck a freelance. In itself, it's not ethical, but you seem to feel that the empowered party is not bound to be ethical, so long as it is lawful. And I have always advocating defying the law if it is not just. I do not believe that the law trumps justice, if the person who has made the law has not served justice with it.

boots, you simply avoid the point. You are basically saying that when presented with injustice, you should simply agree to it or walk away. The point is, the company is using my powerlessness to treat me unfairly. I cannot walk away, because I need the income. Companies use that fact to treat employees abysmally. We do not "negotiate" as equals; the company is empowered and I am not. I do not agree that empowering myself in this way would be "tacky". If it was simply a means to increase my income, I could probably agree with you, but it isn't.

 
At 9:32 am, Blogger Dr Zen said...

high in the sky, that's pretty much what it is. The woman I work for very much agreed that I should have a payrise. Every one of the analysts whose reports I edit would agree. I do them good service and it would be fair to maintain my pay at the same real rate as when I began to work for them.

But some beancounting cunt had different ideas. I'm interested that people consider that "take it or leave it" is a "negotiation". Big companies do not "negotiate" your rate with you. They offer you what they want to pay, and you take it or you don't.

I suppose I underestimate the conventionality (and supineness) of people. None of the respondents considers whether it is right that a company should refuse to maintain your rate. It's as though everyone feels that it's right that they should profit from my work more (because they increase *their* fees to their clients) but pay me relatively less. In fact, you've convinced yourselves that *I* am unethical for using the only means at my disposal to gain a just resolution, but they are acting perfectly ethically in increasing their exploitation of me. No wonder much of the world is effectively enslaved! One wonders what Sour Grapes would make of workers in a country that has outlawed combination. His logic has him siding with the rich that have bought the legislation and not with the poor who seek to sidestep it.

 
At 12:34 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

Zen said: None of the respondents considers whether it is right that a company should refuse to maintain your rate.

i did.

and i explained how you could deal ethically with that:

work slower for them.

then they're not cheating you and you're not cheating them. they get what they pay for.

anyway, why not consider getting paid to make such arguments?

http://www.bickerfest.com

Coming Soon to an argument near you!

 
At 12:37 pm, Blogger O' Tim said...

It's sad that negotiations are not equitable for you, Zen. I support your position and I'll give two personal examples of how I was and am still in the same boat.

My former employer gave paid holidays but leaned on a state law that said he was not required to pay overtime before the 40 hour mark. So during a four-day "holiday work week" we would have to work 10 hour days instead of 8 hour days. I was management and on salary, so that didn't matter to me. The workers lost a negotiation to be paid overtime based on 8 hour days, and because of that I noticed a slowing of production to level out the difference for lost overtime. I got heat from above for this, and when I explained it frankly, the bosses had a "serious" meeting with the workers, squeezing the vise on me further. Bad blood all around with no resolution (in the time I was there and as far as I know, since), all because the higher-ups refused to be equitable.

In my current job I travel by automobile several hundred miles a month. The mileage reimbursement rate from the company is at the same level it was in 1989. They have refused numerous requests for a raise in the rate, always presenting the excuse that the difference can be deducted from my income tax. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 80 percent since 2000. The federal income tax mileage deduction allowance has been risen once since I began my employment with this company, and since the deduction is only a percentage and not a direct credit, it really doesn't come close to reimbursing my actual costs. This is only taking fuel into consideration, not other maintenance costs, wear-and-tear or depreciation. I pad the fuck out of my mileage report and I don't blink an eye.

 
At 12:37 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

your head
is there
to move you around

 
At 12:44 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Tim, that first one beggars belief. How could someone be such a shithead and live with themselves? Of course, Sour Grapes would insist that the workers should abide by the law, and slow-working is unethical, but this is exactly the sort of case I mean: it's clearly not just for the boss to deny them overtime, but someone bought enough legislators to make what he's doing legal.

Dude, I'd pad my mileage too. That's just disgusting.

 
At 12:45 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

make art, not excuses.

 
At 12:53 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

slow-working is NOT unethical. how could it possibly be? they're paying you by the hour.

if they won't pay you what you're worth at top speed, they get what they pay for.

if they're not happy with your performamce at that point, they'll stop giving you work.

OTOH, you end up spending more time on their project because you're working slower, so there's compromise on your end as well.

 
At 1:51 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

also...

zen, working slower for these cheats will probably end up being a far less stressful working experience for you, so you can enjoy it more.

you'll get to concentrate in a much more pleasing way.

a far less hectic way.

ironically, all of the benefits to you (of your working slower) will likely end up providing an even better quality product for the money -- to your client's advantage.

so you see, you just can't win, but at least you can acheive way more peace of mind and joy while you lose.

 
At 2:00 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

OTOH, since by working slower you'll eventually be creating a far better quality product for the money, you can eventually sell your slower-working higher quality work to someone else for a much higher rate per hour -- far exceeding the raise you were seeking with the original cheats here.

see how that works?

by working slower, you've taken life's lemons and turned them into lemonade. you've taken the power away from those who were abusing you with it.

bickerfest.com

creative genius solutions to life's annoying and irritating problems

 
At 3:44 pm, Blogger Looney said...

Zen, if you tell the client to piss off, it's been two years, and it's $50 or nothing, they'll blow you off just to go find someone to do it for $45? I wonder if that's true.

I sometimes take silly risks in my life. I would probably go back in to the people who actually care about my work (not the beancounter, natch) and just tell them you can't work for less than $50, and that if it matters, they need to help you and straighten out the retard in accounting. If they shrug, then walk away. If you can't do that, then I think you ought to just keep doing the work and don't pad it. If you pad it, that same beancounting nard is going to be figuring that they're getting the same output from you, but it's taking you 11% longer, then you're still out of a job, and this time you're all the way out, instead of having the possiblity to go back when they come to their senses.

I don't know. Having been the decision maker on stuff like this for the last 8 or 9 years, I can't imagine treating any of our contractors the way you're being treated.

 
At 3:49 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Anthony, in the ideal world, I'd do that. However, these people will just say "take it or leave it". It's not just that they're fucktards; they're also Australian. Australians do not care about business; they really would be that small.

The work is not a fixed amount though, so no one is going to notice bigger invoices. If I did 30 hours in a month, you're only talking three extra hours after all. You should consider the situation as pretty much risk free. The only person who would know I'd done it is me. That's what makes it an important question to me. I am not only asking does justice trump "the rules", but does justice trump integrity too?

You know, I couldn't hardly believe they had knocked me back. I have given them excellent service, sometimes out of hours, and have never let them down. They've had their money's worth.

 
At 4:53 pm, Anonymous $Zero said...

I am not only asking does justice trump "the rules", but does justice trump integrity too?

working slower covers your ass on both.

but then you have to spend a bit more of your time.

see my other comment for the potential drawbacks and potential beneifts.

 
At 8:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

"boots, you simply avoid the point. You are basically saying that when presented with injustice, you should simply agree to it or walk away. The point is, the company is using my powerlessness to treat me unfairly. I cannot walk away, because I need the income. Companies use that fact to treat employees abysmally. We do not "negotiate" as equals; the company is empowered and I am not."

Horseshit pal, you're as empowered as you allow yourself to be. You can negotiate with God himself if you choose.

Yes, I am saying that if they won't deal fairly with you, walk away and let them fucking do it themselves, or admit that it's the best you're capable of doing and carry on.

Later on you said,

"The work is not a fixed amount though, so no one is going to notice bigger invoices. If I did 30 hours in a month, you're only talking three extra hours after all."

So what, you're going to become a thief for $15 per month?

Face it friend, if $15 per month makes or breaks, you're fucked anyway.

The thin wallet is the source of compromise innit.

Don't mistake me on this Zen, your choices put no nicks in my beak, if you wish to let your wallet beggar your ethics it will cause the death of no soul. You don't have to subscribe to my ethics, or AH's, or anyone elses; you simply will be stuck with the consequences of whatever path you choose, as is the case with every action anyone takes.

 
At 9:38 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

The money does not make or break me, of course.

But I consider it ethical to stiff them! That's what maybe you aren't understanding. I don't see anything unethical about it. I think thieving from thieves is perfectly acceptable. I would also cheat on my tax, for the same reason. The fuckers only spend it on bombs anyway.

What I find slightly obscene is that the same firm will pay the people whose reports I edit *obscene* bonuses. Big enough that when I worked for them in London, a guy who left bought *everyone* in our section -- about a hundred people -- a hundred-quid bottle of shampoo. This is not a company that is short of money. It is purely chiselling for the sake of chiselling.

 
At 3:26 am, Blogger O' Tim said...

Zen wrote: "It's not just that they're fucktards; they're also Australian. Australians do not care about business; they really would be that small...

...This is not a company that is short of money. It is purely chiselling for the sake of chiselling."


That is so not an Australian thing.

 
At 9:14 pm, Blogger Sour Grapes said...

I've never been able to understand why someone would solicit opinions only to trash them and the person delivering them. WTF is with that?

 
At 8:20 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Chill out, old girl. Of course your opinions are proned to get trashed if they are rubbish. That's the nature of the game. Give and take, thrust and parry, not "here's my opinion and it's sacred".

 

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