The Ethicist chimes in on artists’ pay (New York Times, November 19, 2010).
Fair warning to non-profits and other workplaces where the culture of scarcity is king: just as two wrongs do not make a right, very right or well-intentioned causes do not make lower standards of conduct acceptable. Rent, unfortunately, is not due only when foundations send checks. And the grocer doesn’t take good karma in exchange for deli meat.
I hire freelance artists for a national magazine facing tough financial times. Must I tell them that they might be paid late or perhaps not at all? If I do, they might decline the job, and we cannot produce the magazine. If I don’t, I burn a lot of bridges. My superiors assured me that they will start paying contributors, but they said that for months with no results.
NAME WITHHELD, NEW YORK
You may not tell a lie to your freelancers, even a lie of omission, even for the good of the magazine. (Nor may you hijack their cars and use them to deliver the new issue.) You must treat your would-be contributors honestly, as I infer you know, hence your discomfort and your question. That means giving them the best assessment you can of when they will be paid, although this might induce some to turn down assignments.
And you should tell your superiors as much. Their determination to keep the magazine alive in lean times may mean giving up limousines, massages and deluxe lunches; it does not mean giving up ordinary business ethics. They may tighten their belts, but not around someone else’s throat.