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Ignoring the Elephant in the Room: An Open Letter to the Field

By Polly Toledo

Polly Toledo, Community Engagement CoordinatorHi guys, we need to talk.

We need to talk about the elephant in the room.

Arts and culture professionals, we need to talk about respecting yourselves, we need to talk about appropriate behavior.

What am I getting at? A topic that comes up over and over again but nobody seems to be changing their behavior to do something about it. The dismal compensation for arts and culture professionals.

That’s right the bane of every non-profit worker’s existence. The conundrum of struggling to make ends meet versus working at something you are really passionate about. No one got into this line of work to be a millionaire, but we have to find a way to do a better job of addressing pay equity from both sides of the hiring process.

Equity and Inclusion Includes Compensation

We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion and then think nothing of compensation that naturally excludes people from being able to apply. A colleague of mine recently joked about a job posting she had encountered which required applicants to have a Bachelor’s degree and be working on or have a Masters. The pay, $16.50 an hour. Sure that’s better than a poke in the eye and if you have been working unpaid internships (don’t even get me started on those) $16.50 might sound pretty sweet. But who that meets those requirements can afford to work for such wages? Most likely someone who is middle to upper class and has a spouse/partner who can cover the majority of living expenses. So can you see how this might naturally exclude some otherwise great applicants and be a sucker punch to all of our big talk about diversity and inclusion in the work place?

So what’s the answer?

It’s okay to say we don’t exactly know. But it seems that the responsibility must be shared across the board. Here are a few thoughts:

1)              Employers, please stop wasting everyone’s time by not mentioning the pay rate out right in the job posting. Why go through the entire interview and screening process only to find out that the person you want to hire can’t work for what you are offering? It wastes your time and it wastes the applicant’s time. Just stop omitting that vital piece of information.

2)              Also stop asking for salary histories without information about the position’s salary range. From a worker’s perspective it’s a nice way of saying “we want to know how much you made before so that we know how much we can under pay you too”.  The only thing that matters is what you can and are willing to pay for the skills that the new hire is bringing to your organization. Be up front about that. Remember that employees are an investment in themselves. Providing this information will also reduce that stack of resumés to go through by those who need a higher salary than you’re able to offer.

3)              Be realistic about the candidate you want to hire versus what you can afford to pay. Yes everyone wants to pick the candidate with the best education, skills and experience but understand that comes with a price. If you are offering way less than the value of those skill sets be flexible. Not every perfect new hire will meet your golden standards on paper. But if you know you can’t afford to pay your employees at least your region’s average of what they should be making, then you need to work with your governance to change that.

Photo: Twistedsifter

4)              Job searchers, value yourselves! I know this is hard because everyone says that it is taboo to outright ask about compensation in an interview and most of us are so desperate for paid work we will take anything. Do your homework, research your region’s median pay for the job you are applying for at organizations of similar size and operating budget. If the organization makes you an offer that means you will be undercompensated, consider having an conversation about what a fairer salary would be and how you might achieve that figure together through a combination of salary and benefits. (See #5)

5)              Salary and compensation are two different things. The salary may be lower than expected but the benefits (all those things that go into “compensation” like time off, health care, retirement etc.) may be better than other similar opportunities. So know the difference and consider negotiating benefits to balance a low salary with higher compensation.

6)              Ask about the potential for performance based raises. Always get any agreement made in writing and signed. If the organization refuses to meet you half way on this then working at that organization might not be such a dream job after all.

Look it’s hard out here for employers and employees in the arts and culture field, but we need to start putting our money where our mouths are (pun intended). The hiring process requires give and take, let’s be proactive about the situation instead of ignoring the elephant in the room which simultaneously thwarts our attempts at inclusion and keeps everyone struggling.



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