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Work as gift rather than transaction



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.

Businesspeople in office meeting (Tom Merton / Getty Creative)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. She received the tributes paid her as a gift, laughing with delight even at those awkwardly phrased.

The second event took place in a bank. It celebrated the anniversary of a program that offered internships to immigrants who had relevant qualifications and experience abroad but could not find work in Australia. Through mentoring and accompaniment of bank staff most participants found permanent work.


"The logic of gift is cyclical and generative. The energy in it does not flow from mutual self-seeking, as it would if the working relationship were defined as a transaction, but from something better described as love."


The celebration displayed the skills and personal qualities of the participants. Both they and the bank staff involved in the program spoke repeatedly of the gift they had found in each other and in their work together. It displayed their delight and gratitude and the meaning they had found in their work.

Each of these workplace events put on display a number of relationships. Only some could be described as transactions, and even in these the transactional element was highly qualified. People certainly worked for a salary and expected it to be just, but when they spoke of their work, their satisfaction was rooted in other relationships that lay outside the financial.

In the two events the relationships between people, and the people themselves, were seen as a gift. The natural response to people whom one sees as a gift is one of mutual gratitude. This pervaded the atmosphere of the events. Shared gratitude flows naturally into shared delight in each other's company and the commitments.

The delight is also experienced as a gift that renews one's energy for work and for building deeper relationships through it. Thus the logic of gift is cyclical and generative. The energy in it does not flow from mutual self-seeking, as it would if the working relationship were defined as a transaction, but from something better described as love.

This quality suggests that it is in the interests of companies, as well as of the people who compose them, to see the relationships that constitute work more broadly than the image of transaction allows. In a good enterprise work is a form of self-transcendence through relationships with other workers, with the people whom they serve directly and with the broader society.

The spirit and relationships between staff and the contribution of the firm to build good relationships in society are as important as the purely financial relationships, and indeed are necessary to sustain the latter.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Tom Merton / Getty Creative

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, banks royal commission



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew. The notion of ‘gift’ can be so creative in human affairs. For example I have an artist friend whose husband was struck down mid career with Parkinsons. A memorable mentor of hers mused, ‘I wonder what good can come of this?’ My friend then worked for over 20 years to establish a group which delighted Parkinson sufferers with revelations of their remarkable capacity to paint. I would like to see the topic of interpersonal dependence as ‘gift’ explored more fully. Perhaps I could contribute something on this in Eureka Street as it would surely have relevance to the recently announced royal commission into disability issues? I see interpersonal dependence not of course as a gift to the person with a disability but as a gift to the community in bringing it together in new ways. When I see carers escorting persons with a disability in public whilst still glued to their iPhones, I feel concerned that they may be overlooking this gift.

Jill | 11 April 2019  

Thanks Fr Andrew for this wonderful articulation of work as gift. The way in which it really manifests its culture is in the recruitment and exiting of employees. The replacement of staff with robotic technologies is also an indication of this dearth of understanding if reskilling and transition planning and support isn’t part of the offerings. If not, there isn’t even a transactional relationship!

Mary Tehan | 11 April 2019  

Andrew your story reminds me of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. My husband finds this biblical story very unfair, it seems that men think in terms of political economy rather than social cohesion. I tell him its not about the money, its about the input, the willingness of the workers to contribute to another's need to get the harvest done (grapes must be picked when the sugar level is at a premium). Political economy is a false science because its value is discriminatory. I wonder if society's high focus on the economic value of work has come about because of gender inequality in boardrooms? As you have pointed out, work can be a gift to the worker when it is given without the self serving attitude.

Trish Martin | 11 April 2019  

Thank you so much for this. When work dares to become community...

Andrew McAlister | 11 April 2019  

Big Thanks for this stunning evocation of the Catholic social teaching on work, Andy! I participated yesterday in an ABC RN discussion, called 'God Forbid!', on educational work with the remarkable Marion Maddox, who, in response to a critical remark of mine about 'Productive Pedagogies' and 'Curriculum Objectives', reminded me that Vinnies was the only agency to withdraw from the Commonwealth's decision to contract out its employment services to Church agencies in return for placing a moratorium on the latter's policy critique. I notice this egregious 'jobs-for-cash' Faustian bargain in the 'Employment Plus' information package sent out to job-seekers by the Salvation Army - great charitable work though they undoubtedly do, but with no reference to relationships and other aspects of employment satisfaction and justice in the workplace.

Michael Furtado | 11 April 2019  

There are not many poets whose financial security comes from their work at poets. In W H Auden's wonderful exploration of the work and person of D H Lawrence, Auden wrote: "We can be grateful to him for what he can do for us, without claiming that he can do everything or condemning him because he cannot...Lawrence possessed a great capacity for affection and charity, but he could only direct it towards non-human life or peasants whose lives were so uninvolved with his that, so far as he was concerned, they might just as well have been nonhuman." Many people would discard the genius who produced the masterpiece "Snake" but I am not one of them. I thank God for that.

Pam | 11 April 2019  

Many thanks, Andrew, for such a thoughtful article. Alas, I fear that your approach is not shared within business on a wide scale. In the case of enterprises with a clear orientation towards people, such as disability and charitable services, in principle it should not be so hard to have it understood and practised. However, it is not only the impending rise of robotics (mentioned by Mary Tehan) that cuts across it, but the already present tenuous nature of so many jobs by non-robots. Short-term employment and insecure arrangements do nothing to develop relationships among co-workers or to allow focus on the non-utilitarian benefits of working. Likewise, in education (where casualisation is widespread, and universities do not run "courses" but supply "educational products") it is evident that it is more difficult to maintain an altruistic ethos. And I am under no illusion that more women on boards (Trish Martin) will contribute any time soon to great improvements, as I hear more evidence even from women of a "girls' club" among many who have made it to the board being not anxious to foster more women at executive level lest they threaten their positions (not universal, but that phenomenon exists).

Dennis | 11 April 2019  

When I commenced teaching at a Congregational College in the 1980's I saw my work as a "Vocation" as much as employment, which give me a salary so I could live, but also allowed me to use my God given gifts and talents for the benefit of my students. That idealism was soon knocked out of me when I realised that view of my work was not shared by many staff and less so by the administration. I soon realised it was "bums on seats" driven by striving for sporting excellence, followed by academic excellence and lastly upholding the ethos of the Founder and the Order! Over the years I became quite cynical about why the Catholic Church is involved in education. Is it just to have bums on seats on Sundays? Given our history when in the early days "sectarism" was alive and well, I suspect the siege mentality still drives this agenda. Sadly the welfare of staff is well down the list, again reflecting the selfless sacrifice of the Nuns and Brothers who staffed Catholic Schools up to the 1960's when the well dried up.

Gavin O'Brien | 11 April 2019  

Yes, yes, Andy! Relationships are key. When people see their work as contributing to a higher purpose, when it is seen as a means of further benefits to society it takes on that generative role you mentioned. When we work together towards a common goal we can see work as a form of self-transcendance through relationships with others. We are motivated to work whole-heartedly with justice as a goal. There is an eagerness to promote the company’s goals as we see it achieving human flourishing as well as profit margins.

Anne Doylr | 12 April 2019  

Should never have elevated business and marketing to university status - another US pseudo-academic invention that presumes to lend credibility/respect to company and shareholder profit, executive salaries and "good boy" bonuses - usually at a cost to the employee and the consumer. Jesus of Nazareth was lucky when you think of it. He didn't seem to have a productive job, earned nothing, owned nothing, relied on others for food and shelter and was never reported as far as I can recall to have returned such favours in kind nor was ever expected to. And unlike the modern business titans he didn't think he was God - he knew he was.

john frawley | 12 April 2019  

I'm touched by your post, John Frawley; though I find your closing remark ambivalent. The South African Dominican, Albert Nolan, in his opus magnus, 'Jesus Before Christianity' (JBC, Orbis Books, 1976) shows how Jesus BECAME the Son of God, i.e. he grew into his Sonship by becoming fully human. JBC is perhaps the finest expression of contextual theology in English, and arises out of the South African struggle against apartheid. It would be interesting to find out who the Australian Christ might be, i.e. who, if anybody, has written a liberation theology text for Australian conditions. I suspect that Albert Namatjira gives us an inkling with his marvellous lithograph/woodcut of a crucified Aborigine.

Michael Furtado | 12 April 2019  

PS. And we have Friedmanomics to blame for the free-marketisation of everything, including, you'll squirm to appreciate, the abolition of medical licenses. In fact, Friedman's ambition was to put everything, including all education, 'into the hands of the consumer'. Go figure!

Michael Furtado | 13 April 2019  

What is "ambivalent" about John Frawley's remark, Michael Furtado? The very title of Fr Nolan's book "Jesus Before Christianity" is ironically problematic in that it suggests Christology can be conducted outside the primary context in which it originated and has been transmitted: the Church. There are also problems with the notion that Jesus grew into his Sonship of God: as formulated in the Nicene Creed, Jesus is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father"; and Luke's Gospel (2:49) presents Jesus, even as a twelve-year-old, as being conscious of his relationship with his Father. The Church's teaching tradition does not support the image of Jesus simply as a social and political revolutionary. Nor does it limit the reign of God's scope to this world only with an exclusive emphasis on social and political action; or present the whole of the gospels' message as social teaching, important though it is. To my mind, the last thing Australia needs is a "liberation theology" based on secular premises.

John RD | 14 April 2019  

John RD, I'd like to subscribe to the view, although I can't prove it, that the Brobdingnagian world of which Swift wrote provides evidence of the ongoing work of Revelation, especially in revealing the Swiftian gift of satire. I'd like also to think that if Swift had known you and your passion for essentialism, he would have made a passing reference or two to you in a novel. I suspect he would have appointed you as Constantine's scribe, always at hand to remind his liege lord that the signatories to the Nicene Creed were to be starved until that disagreeable Church rabble, whom Constantine had locked up, signed on the dotted line. I fully additionally appreciate, as Albert Nolan ought to have, that your insistence that Jesus's growth into the fullness of his adult humanity should put an end to the subject of our contextual Christological speculation, except that Nolan's book , now translated into several languages and re-editions, has never earned the criticism of latter-day Pharisees, and that he was twice offered the highest office in the global Dominican Order, which he turned down in preference to spreading Christ's message in the troubled and unjust South African theological context.

Michael Furtado | 14 April 2019  

Michael Furtado's glib dismissal of the importance of Credal affirmations in the Church's faith and history serves only to underline why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had cause to criticise the secular assumptions of aspects of "liberation theology" and its manipulation of biblical concepts for political ends inspired the dialectic of Marxist materialism.

John RD | 17 April 2019