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Everyday Philosophy: “Should I have to work the same hours as my inefficient colleague?”

Rich is brilliant at his job. He completes work in half the time of his coworkers. Should he have to sit at his desk just as long?
Woman wearing pixelated sunglasses sits at a desk, with graphic overlays of a line graph demonstrating workplace equality, classical figures in discussion, and a clock indicating 2 o'clock.
Credit: Magnet Me / Big Think / Ben Gibson
Key Takeaways
  • Welcome to Everyday Philosophy, the column where I use insights from the history of philosophy to help you navigate the daily dilemmas of modern life.
  • This week, we look at having to work as long as colleagues who aren’t as efficient as you — for the same pay.
  • To help answer the question, we look at two titans of political philosophy: Karl Marx and John Rawls

“I work for a PR company. It’s big enough that you’d know it. I’m really good at my job. That’s not arrogant. It takes me 30 minutes to do things my colleagues take half a day to do. In my mind, they are inefficient and/or not that good at their job. I often resent and moan to my wife that I have to work until 5 p.m. when everyone else is mucking about. So, should I resent working as long as my inefficient colleagues do? And should I have to?”

— Richard

I’m going to do something a bit brave in this week’s column. I’m going to mention Marx and socialism. If my editor is smart, he’ll put them in the title. All attention is good attention, after all. Because there are few things more likely to bait the caps-lock smashers than the word “Marx.” I can already imagine their screens flecked with angry spittle. But fret not; it’s all for a good cause.

At the heart of Rich’s dilemma is a pretty basic, but hugely important, question: Why are your employers paying you? Are they paying you for a product or hours on the clock? It’s a question of wages and labor. And like him or loathe him, Marx had a lot to say about both. So, we’ll bring a bit of Das Kapital heft to Rich’s side.

But to argue the other side, we’ll draw on someone as capitalist-stewed as any American: John Rawls. Rawls will offer us an alternative, possibly less appealing, answer for Rich.

Karl Marx: Sell yourself for a good price

When you sit down at a job interview, the suited, serious people are looking to see what you can offer the company. According to Marx, they aren’t looking for what you can make or do. They want to know how much labor you can give them. They are peering into your CV and your soul to determine your production potential.

An employer is going to pay you for your “labor-power.” Now, there’s a subtle difference between labor and labor-power. Labor-power is how much you’ve got in you. It’s the sum of your talent, skills, natural abilities, and grit. When you combine labor-power with the tools the employer gives you — a computer, some factory tools, misfitting apparel, and so on — then you create labor. You are not being paid for your labor but for your labor-power. You are not paid for this or that outcome, but to turn up and create outcomes.

On the face of it, this looks like Rich is in for a shocker: Both he and his colleague should work the same hours because that’s what an employer is paying for. But there’s a huge, extra-zero caveat to that: You are selling your labor-power (i.e., your ability to produce) in exchange for value. So, if your labor-power is more efficient than that of a colleague, then you should be getting more for it. You pay more for a faster computer.

Which is a long, Marxist way of saying: Yes, Rich, you have to work the same hours. But you should be getting paid more for them. If not? Well, you’ve sold yourself short.

John Rawls: Should you get money for being born lucky?

Let’s play a game of empathy. Imagine you are Rich’s colleague. And let’s make it a bit dramatic to emphasize the point. This colleague works eight hours. They have three kids at home. They struggle on, day in and day out, to make ends meet. They work their asses off at work. Still, they’re a bit crap. They were perhaps not born as intelligent or with the right character traits. They didn’t get good schooling or make the right contacts. To them, Rich is a lucky git. He can swan into work, breeze through the day, and wallow in the congratulations of his bosses. Rich was lucky to be so efficient.

Rawls’ philosophy challenges the notion that we should give money to people based on unchangeable factors. Rawls’ “original position,” for example, asks us: How would you create a world, as fairly as possible, if you didn’t know what base traits or abilities you’d be born with? How would you create an economic and world order where you could be an efficient Rich or an imbecile prone to carpal tunnel?

This all hints at a theory known as “luck egalitarianism.” It’s not fair to have society reward a genetic lottery. It’s not egalitarian to give more money to someone because of the luck of their birth and upbringing. Luck egalitarianism is to distribute goods and tasks to everyone. And yes, that means hours and effort at work, too. Rich and his colleague should feel the pain equally. They should work equally as hard, and it doesn’t matter if the outcome is different for each. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” wrote Marx, and so Rich finds no support in the socialist arms of luck egalitarian distribution.

A battleground of values

Rich’s dilemma represents a wider battle of values. Should an employee be paid according to their effort or the company’s value? I suspect most people reading this would be inclined more toward the latter. If you are a boss, you want to hire someone who will make, do, or give you amazing things. You don’t want Mr. Inefficient, who spends an hour talking around the coffee machine and two days a month on the phone with IT because he keeps forgetting his password. Likewise, it seems unfair to force Rich or any efficient worker to work the same hours as Mr. Inefficient. To do so seems to penalize ability. It encourages people to slack and doctor their time sheets.

So, I would argue that Rich is right to feel angry. And in an ideal world, he could clock off when a job well done. But the truth is that most companies still equate time with productivity, and hard work ends at 5 p.m. at the earliest.

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