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The FAIRNESS doctrine.

Reduce the emotion; reduce the threat of lawsuit.

You’ve certainly experienced the angry outburst from an associate or employee who has just learned of an event that the person took as “unfair,” no matter how rational the explanation by the decision maker.

Most emotional responses to decisions in business are generated not because the person making the response feels the decision was unwise, but rather unfair.

So I’ve created the “Fairness Doctrine,” as a stated element in the cultural fabric of businesses where I am involved.  Simply stated, a decision or action that affects an individual must be made with consideration of the affected individual’s view of the fairness of that decision.  This doctrine is a variant of “do unto others” but with a twist.  The recipient of the decision in this case usually has little opportunity to respond in kind (“as you would have them do unto you”).  It is this frustration coupled with the simple outcry of “That’s not fair!” – that can affect the culture of a company in ways never considered by the original decision-maker.

People sue others and their companies usually because they feel emotionally that they have been treated unfairly, not just because they were affected financially.

[Email readers, continue here…]  Firing a person considered a key associate without any advance warnings or public revelation for the reason, such as the need to consolidate or downsize, is a good example of setting up such a groundswell of accusations of unfair treatment.  Public dressing down of an employee in front of associates is inhumane and often generates a negative response from all who witness or Managing_forcehear of the action.  Closing a highly effective department, shutting down a marginal company, canceling a promising project all are good examples of management setting up a visceral response of “unfair” among those affected.

I have often addressed the issue of maintaining the dignity of the individual in a business environment.  The two are linked: the fairness doctrine and treatment of an individual with dignity, no matter how distasteful the decision implemented.

So my advice is to take the time to establish the reasons for pending actions – if not in an emergency environment.  Speak privately to employees who are in danger of being fired, documenting the discussion to the employee’s file.  Open up to the general group with facts that might later affect them, even at the risk of losing one or more to a hunt for a new job.  Most employees and associates, treated with respect and dignity, will respond with understanding and lose the emotion that might have accompanied receiving the later news of a negative event.

In fact, many times over the years, I have seen whole companies rise to new levels of efficiency, creativity, and sense of urgency when informed of the alternatives being considered by a board or management.

At the risk of losing talent not targeted, it is only fair to treat people as intelligent beings capable of understanding the dilemmas faced by management, and sometimes able to find solutions to problems not seen by those in control.

  • Dave Berkus is by far, the most fair person I have ever met or worked for. His fairness in the workplace was a true success story. This man knows what he is talking about!

  • Clarence

    “Unfair”….what a provocative and complicated concept THAT is. Even if we as a society could agree as to what is fair or unfair, there will be those who could care less. Nevertheless, is it really fair or unfair that ceo’s pay, on the average, is increasing where incomes for the bottom 99% of households is decreasing? *

    Is the imposition of a minimum wage fair? Is it fair that Unions have defanged many decision makers by the implementation of “first hire, last fire” rules, often encumbering efforts for more efficient/productive/progressive/goals oriented operations? Further, what’s “fair” about maternity leave for women? And, do those who use “fairness” as a reason to demand benefits really understand the “dilemmas facing management?” I fear many of those folks are like the ceo’s who average over $12,000,000 a year total compensation*: THEY DON’T CARE!

    Frankly, it’s all quite discouraging.

  • Bill Keenan

    Excellent essay …again!

  • Dan Hoefflin

    True fairness, in all things, is a virtue to be admired. People want to work for ethical, fair leaders, and we should always encourage such virtue. However, in our crybaby environment these days, there will always be those who believe they are being unfairly treated because they don’t get what they want. A strong leader will act fairly, decisively, courageously and intelligently in all matters — easy and difficult. Let the crybabies of the world whine, hopefully out of earshot, after they’ve been fairly and reasonably dismissed.

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