Most of us don’t give much thought to the fact that many of our relationships with other people are defined by some degree of reciprocity. To some extent, reciprocity is the very nature of human interpersonal relations. Although these relationships can be extremely beneficial for the parties involved, it is important to be aware of the potential to be taken advantage of. Quite simply, you need to know how to work a reciprocal relationship to your advantage without being taken advantage of in the process.
Reciprocity is roughly the idea of some sort of give and take interaction. I do something for you, and you do something for me in return. Your job is an example of a reciprocity-based relationship. They pay you to show up and do work for them. This is one type of reciprocal relationship where most people are exceedingly aware of the potential to be taken advantage of. Your employer probably wants to get by with paying you as little as possible, while expecting maximum returns on that investment. Already it should be clear that we must be wary whenever reciprocal relationships are entered into.
Two important ethical considerations are helpful in not being taken advantage of in our reciprocity-based relationships. First, we can make sure that our own benefit is sufficient. This means that we seek out what it is we really want, and are not afraid to ask for what we deserve. In addition, we can try to avoid allowing other parties to take too much from us. This requires that we think about what is really being asked of us, and refrain from offering more than we are willing to part with in a given situation.
Let’s consider each of these factors in terms of the reciprocal relationship already mentioned, our jobs. In order to avoid being taken advantage of by my employer, I want to make sure that I am receiving my due in exchange for the work being done. I ought to find out what the national average salary is for the work I’m doing, adjusted for location, and compare my pay to this number. If I am well below that, I ought to ask for more money. Further, my benefit package ought to compare to what most people receive for the type of work I’m doing.
We should also note that it is not acceptable to adjust the quality or amount of your own work in order to compensate for low pay or lousy benefits. By accepting your job, you have entered into a contract with your employer to provide a certain level of performance. If you are unhappy with what you are receiving, this is fertile ground for negotiating a better salary and benefit package, but it is not sound justification for slacking off and doing a lousy job.
The other way to avoid being taken advantage of in a reciprocity-based relationship is to make sure that you are not going beyond expectations without compensation, and that you are not agreeing to do more than you are really comfortable with. Again, the workplace demonstrates this principle well. For example, I once had a job that required me to work every other Saturday. I did receive overtime pay for the day, but I had no choice about whether or not I wanted to work. Although I was compensated for the extra work time, not having the choice to opt out of the overtime work was more than I was willing to give, and this became a significant factor in my quitting that job. It was not the overtime, but the lack of choice that was more than I felt comfortable giving to this employer.
Again, there is a dysfunctional counterpart to this means of not being taken advantage of. Some people will attempt to make up for not receiving the compensation they feel is due by “enhancing” their pay and benefits package. For example, many individuals take exceedingly lengthy breaks and lunches, in an effort to make their hourly wage slightly higher. Salaried employees are often not closely monitored, and that extra fifteen minutes a day can add up when evaluated on a per-paycheck basis. Another inappropriate strategy for enhancing one’s returns is to steal supplies from your workplace. Not only are these strategies highly unethical, they will not provide the level of satisfaction that you will feel when you take a firm stand concerning your own rights and what you are and are not willing to give up for your job.
Reciprocal relationships are a part of life, as well as a rich arena for ethical development. It is easy to slip up and utilize less than ideal means to achieve one’s goals. However, by being honest with yourself and those whom you have these sorts of relationships with, and by not resorting to questionable means of “leveling the payout,” you can have the sorts of reciprocal relationships that you both want and can feel good about.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.