I was (probably accidentally) underpaid, and what’s bugging me isn’t the amount — it’s the principle.
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I recently baby-sat for one of my regular families and was underpaid by $12. The mom knows my going rate — she even double-checked with me before she wrote the check. I think she was just tired and miscalculated. It’s a small amount, but it was still irksome. My mum thinks I should let it go. I’m inclined to, because I’ve asked the family for job references, and they’ve referred me to their friends. Yet, as a young woman (17), I want to practice valuing myself and my work, and I don’t like our culture’s taboo around money. Is there a way to lessen the risk of burning a bridge if I say something? Is it even worth it?
J.R. / Boston
Talk to her. Not because of the money, but because you wisely know you are, right now, laying down skills and habits that will shape your career. Also, while it’s human nature to want to avoid awkward conversations, your gut is telling you to speak up, or you wouldn’t have written.
Ask your client if you can review your pay from the last time. Don’t accuse her of shortchanging you — there is, after all, a (remote) possibility that the error was on your side. Keep it neutral and simple: “I realized after I got home that this might not be right. Can we check? If I worked from 5 to 8, then according to my calculations . . .” Of course you’ll sound a wee bit disingenuous — “So I got two plus two equals four, but what do you think?” — but if you work regularly with small children, you’re skilled at feigned naivete and rhetorical questions. Don’t be confrontational or overly apologetic, and don’t go into extraneous details like how busy your schedule is.
If she’s a decent person, she’ll want to make the error right. If she weasels or blusters or gives you reason to think she cheated you, you have a decision to make. Does the business she refers to you make up for being occasionally shortchanged? Sometimes a professional has to fire a client. This is a strategic decision, not a moral one. Neither ethics nor etiquette demand that you go along with being underpaid. You’re not allowed to be abusive to her, nor to steal from her to make up the loss, but there is nothing rude or disrespectful about asking for what you and she have agreed should be yours.
Afterward, think about the experience. Did you act according to your values? Are you satisfied with your behavior? Are you content with the results? Did your cost-benefit analysis work out as you planned? Write down your reflections.
You don’t do this because the conversation is that risky. It’s not. You won’t screw this up. Even if you’re a bit clumsy about it, you’re a teenager. People will cut you slack, plus you’ll be in college soon and not baby-sitting as much. And then you’ll get a job, and another job, and maybe go back to school for another degree or start your own business or join that global firm. And someday a major, reputation-making client will start delaying payment and quibbling about extra fees. And you’ll know how to handle it, because you will have handled it before.
That’s one hell of an educational value for $12.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.
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