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Work as gift rather than transaction

  • 10 April 2019


In recent weeks the hard-heads of finance and business have struck back, questioning the findings of the royal commission, stressing the responsibility of businesses, their boards and superannuation trustees to run profitable businesses for shareholders, and dismissing any attempt to define the responsibility of companies to others, whether it be their clients, ecological goals or equality. These critics have a clear vision of business and the relative places of shareholders, workers, customers and public within it.

At the heart of this vision is the understanding of work in terms of transaction. In the labour market workers contract with the firm to work for a wage, and the relationship between the worker and firm, between wage and work, is governed by the balance between cost and benefit. If workers are productive they are promoted and their remuneration increases accordingly.

In transactions, it is expected that each party will assess the relationship with reference to what is in its own interests. The conditions offered to workers and to customers will also be calibrated in terms of cost and benefit. Any gifts made to them are assessed by the returns that are expected from them. They are an expression of enlightened self-interest. The profits of the company are at the disposal of those who have put money into it and those whom they employ to run it. If any virtue is honoured in all this, it is transactional justice.

This view has the merit of a severe logic. It removes from companies the unpredictable and distracting human dimension and uses the simple metaphor of the market to confine the discussion of work to quantifiable and concrete activities. It enables focus. Yet it leaves out of consideration the qualities that are most valued in work, and are essential for the long-term success of any organisation.

I saw this demonstrated in two recent workplace events that were wholly played in the key of gift, not of transaction. The first was a farewell for a friend at a non-government organisation. People who spoke of her described her as a gift to the organisation and to themselves.

She herself spoke with gratitude of the gift her colleagues were to her, of the gift it was to work for the betterment of vulnerable people, of the gift she found in knowing that the toil involved helped people, and of the gift she had received through the supervisors who had supported and mentored her.