The Risk of Being "Fair" During an Economic Recession

Contributor: Doug Wilwerding
Posted: 03/12/2009
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Discussions of Fairness During an Economic Recession

Through my brief 46 years of life, I have noticed that the concept of "fairness" flows in and out of the societal lexicon. If my observations are accurate, discussions of fairness seem to come in fashion in times of great expansion and great contraction in the distribution of spoils. Whether economic, political or tangible gains are being realized or extracted, somebody, somewhere, will rise up and declare that the outcomes are "unfair."

Today, given the change in our political climate and the challenges of a global economic recession, we are hearing more and more talk about what is fair. And it seems to me that executive-level business managers are airing more and more divergent opinions during this economic recession. As the pressures rise on many fronts and everyone feels more vulnerable to the vagaries of the markets and the shifting landscapes, people tend to move to self-preservation mode, making sure the outcomes they can (or believe they can) control are favorable to their interests.

The debate on the fairness of many topics could rage on unresolved for days and weeks, if not years. That is the basic root of the concept of fairness. Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What one person deems to be fair can be abjectly unfair to another as they stand side by side witnessing the same fact set unfold. As executive-level business managers, we simply see things differently based on our own needs, our biases, our experiences and, perhaps most foundationally, our personal agendas.

As executive-level business managers, I suggest that during the economic recession, we avoid the concept of "fair" and its inherent risks in deference to the objectivity of merit. Merit, ultimately, is objectively "fair."

Fairness with Employees vs. Executive-level Business Managers

Promotions, raises, assignments, hiring, firing, layoffs, transfers, even down to workspace locations and work-area sizes are all subjects of debate among employees, who will frequently migrate to the discussion of what is fair vs. what was done inside an enterprise. In the politics of any organization, employees have agendas and biases that cloud judgment. Whether defending themselves or co-workers, employees will take up the mantle of fairness.

Executive-level business mangers, on the other hand, should always remove themselves from the fairness debate, but especially during an economic recession. While there is no such thing as perfect objectivity (even executive-level business managers are human, sometimes too human), objectivity nonetheless has to be the foundation for all decisions and the cornerstone for the argument-supporting decisions that are made.

The Importance of Objectivity for Executive-level Business Managers

Objectivity allows a business to run as a meritocracy. And decisions founded on demonstrated merit and a clear set of sustained objective measures in the end are the most sound and defensible over time.

Objectivity in business is not situational, and merit-based decisions are not "of the moment"; this is frequently in stark contrast to decisions that are deemed "fair," which are most often "of the moment." Objectivity requires solid, long-range plans and objectives to be set by the executive-level business manager, which is the executive-level business manager's first and primary responsibility. Secondly, objectivity requires that executive-level business managers set up measures and communicate what constitutes successful attainment of the objective. The executive-level business manager must also define what successful attainment means in the form of recognition and reward for the employees assigned the responsibility and the authority to carry out the related work. Third, objectivity means that recognition and rewards, whether they are financial, additional and greater assignments, etc., are actually delivered to the employee earning them and in a timely fashion.

If these tenants are followed by executive-level business managers the enterprise will truly be a meritocracy. When decisions are based on widely-known and clearly-publicized standards, and opportunity and reward are in direct relationship to measurable contribution to the stated objectives, there is little room for a debate on "fairness."

Rewarding Success During an Economic Recession

Know that there are legions of executive-level business mangers who are absolutely opposed to meritocracy in any form. In their primary argument they postulate that it is inappropriate to reward the capable and the successful employees because they were "randomly" gifted with skill, ability, work ethic, intelligence, drive, endurance, etc. Folks, there is nothing random about success, and our job as executive-level business managers is solely to lead our enterprises to success. We as executive-level business managers materially stack the deck in our favor by persistently building our enterprise on those who have earned, via the merits of their work and contribution, the opportunity at greater responsibility. The greatest contribution we can make to our shareholders, our associates and our communities is to run and grow successful companies, especially during an economic recession. Successful companies create jobs, pay taxes, solve problems in society and spawn new successful companies.

As an executive-level business manager, the best way to assure the success of your company during an economic recession is make it a meritocracy and avoid the risk of being "fair." And in the long run, this is actually the fairest thing you can do.
Contributor: Doug Wilwerding