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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 in which I am involved.  Simply stated, a decision or action that affects an individual must be made with consideration as to 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 to you”).  It is this frustration coupled with the simple outcry of “That’s unfair” that can affect the culture of a company in ways never considered by the original decision-maker, usually a manager of the person or group effected.

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 hear 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 effect 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.

  • Rick Munson

    Dave thank you for a very postive and thought provoking message on empoyee fariness. The Golden Rule, as applied in business, points to treating all as equals, and all events as neutral. That being said, I am a believer in moving to the next “lower level”…and that is that our empoloyees deserve to be treated with all fariness and respect, at all times…more so than we treat ourselves.

  • Bob Leisy


    Another thought that may be useful in coming as close as possible to practicing the Golden Rule in business — which you so rightly emphasize: To modify a line from the Occidental Honor Code in the ASOC Constitution — “That no executive shall take unfair advantage of another employee…”.

  • Dan Hoefflin

    This article is right on point. The Golden Rule solves many problems and is simply good business. If an employee is surprised by a bad review, getting fired, etc., it almost always is a negative reflection upon the management. The only time a “surprise” is warranted is when it’s something good or when actions that are nefarious, dangerous, or illegal are occurring and you cannot take the time to wait.

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