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Good employers treat staff as they would like to be treated themselves

Paul Finch

In business, you pay either what you can get away with (the crap employer), or a proper salary, with proper terms and conditions (which will attract better staff), says Paul Finch

‘We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes,’ said Peter Mandelson in his socialist pomp, as part of a Labour government which could not stop winning elections. Inequality, in other words, could be OK in the right context.

Does this mean that people should be rewarded differently if they do the same job? Samira Ahmed’s pay tribunal victory over the BBC suggests that this is no longer (if it ever was) acceptable. What might this mean for the world of architecture?

Are jobs exactly the same outside the world of the production line, especially where creativity is involved? Is it appropriate to pay someone the same as their colleague if they do a much better job? Is it acceptable to give bonuses on a differential basis, rather than adhere to equality for all? And are there downsides to the idea that people can be put in boxes because they are working on similar projects?

The UK architectural profession, for about 150 years, exercised its monopoly position, created by the RIBA, to control the fees payable by clients, on the basis that architects were the same by virtue of being qualified professionals and, therefore, whichever practice you used, you should pay the same percentage sum in fees.

So how might clients go about choosing the best architect for their particular job? In respect of low-key choices, it would frequently be the result of word-of-mouth, golf-club recommendation or masonic connection. However, in respect of major commissions, especially for public projects, a different story emerged: hence the rise and rise of the architectural competition, the Palace of Westminster refurb being an obvious example.

Competitions, of course, were based either on recommendation/interview or, more commonly, as the result of design contests. Since the fees payable would be similar, there was no reason for clients to try to interfere with the cartel basis of a profession which forced contractors to compete on price (via control of contracts), but which abhorred that idea in respect of its own activities.

An onslaught of consumerist ideology in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in an unbeatable attack on fee scales and the protected position of architects in the construction food chain. Although this began before Mrs Thatcher became prime minister, it was on her watch that the idea of ‘compulsory competitive tendering’ for public procurement was introduced, with disastrous results for architects. Now they could be required, sometimes by their contractor clients under design and build contracts, to produce fee bids to accompany their design proposals. Or, sometimes, just the fee bids.

From observation, architects of similar talents and experience doing the same sort of job within a practice tend to get paid roughly the same

This complex background makes the debate about equal pay for equal jobs look relatively simple. From observation, architects of similar talents and experience doing the same sort of job within a practice tend to get paid roughly the same. Is there any conclusive evidence to suggest otherwise?

Serious pay discrepancies, especially involving gender, can usually be explained by the vagaries of what is included in employment trend surveys – for example whether partners/directors/owners are treated as employees; or whether non-architect staff are treated as qualified professionals.

Compared with the bizarre world of the BBC, with its nest-feathering culture where people get paid huge sums when they resign (as opposed to being made redundant), architectural practices are relatively straightforward and operate on business principles, unlike the world of entitlement at Langham Place.

In the world of business, you tend to pay either what you can get away with (the crap employer), or a proper salary, accompanied by proper terms and conditions (which will ensure good employers attract better staff). Good employers pay their interns and year-out staff. They treat staff as they would like to be treated themselves. Decency, not ‘equality’, is the order of the day.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Treating staff as they would like to be treated themselves is indeed a good idea. However, for architects, this should include employers being prepared to work the same sort of hours that they expect their staff to work.

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  • I wonder if there's an element of tradition in this, with some employers thinking (but maybe not saying) 'been there, done that, and now it's your turn.'

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