A story’s making the rounds today that acts as sort of a Rorschach Test, in that everyone who hears it seems to have a different take on what it means. The story concerns famed business magnate, engineer and inventor Elon Musk and his long-time assistant, Mary Beth Brown. According to Musk’s biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Brown approached her boss of 12 years asking about a raise. What follows is pretty wild, via Business Insider:
In response, Musk told Brown to take two weeks off, during which he would assume her responsibilities and see if she was really critical to his success.
When Brown returned after two weeks, Musk told Brown he didn’t need her anymore.
Musk also told Vance that he offered Brown another position at the company, but she never returned to the office again after that.
As Jalopnik notes, this story is backed up by at least one other source. Quora has an interview with Musk’s ex-wife Justine, in which she related the same tale (in her telling, Musk gave Brown three weeks instead of four) and says that her ex-husband acted in a similar manner whenever she’d come back from a vacation, remarking on how easy it was for him to get on without her around. Sounds like a fun guy.
So Business Insider, in its writeup turned this into a lesson about the folly of asking for a raise without knowing for sure how valuable you are to your employer. “This example is pretty extreme,” the article admits “but it’s a solid lesson in knowing what you’re worth to your organization.” Boingboing agreed in its own analysis, concluding “the moral of the story: make sure you know what you’re worth before asking for more money.”
Sure. That’s one take. It’s true that asking for a raise will force employers to measure your worth. The corporate environment requires companies to evaluate employees based on what they bring to the organization and that can, at times, mean difficult choices have to be made.
But the flip side here is that Mary Beth Brown is a human being, not a bag of apples to be haggled over. She was not apparently bad in her role (in the Quora interview, Justine Musk describes her an “exceptional and devoted employee” who “gave her life to the job”), but after twelve years on the job, she probably felt like a raise was not an absurd request. In all likelihood, she knew there was a possibility her ask would get shot down. But she approached her boss as a human being to talk it over anyway, and he approached her as a tool, useful until it’s not.