Fair Play

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Like almost everyone else, I started out at the bottom. Back in the early days of my career as an engineer, I was junior to just about everyone where I worked. In fact, my life among the cube farms began at the very bottom of the professional ladder. Despite what you might imagine, given my present day savoir-faire, my grades in college could most charitably be described as a gentleman’s C. My undistinguished track record at the University and a bad economy upon graduation from the University meant I didn’t get a job as an engineer. I got a job search and the opportunity to get my old job on the farm back.

In fact, I believe with ample evidence to support my belief, that I was the last member of my graduating class to find a job as an engineer. After some months of what in retrospect was a painfully inept search, a local assembly plant, charitably known here as the factory, took pity on me and hired me. I was an industrial engineer, troubleshooting problems on their simple assembly lines. I expect that my University professors, upon being informed that I got a job at the factory, imagined me to be a fork lift driver rather than as an engineer.

Fresh off the farm, my new job in a factory fit my image of what engineers did, at least the ones who didn’t get the sweet jobs driving trains. My starting salary was the princely sum of $ 725/month. That amount was well below the $900/month starting salary that most of my classmates got. But most of my classmates had gone to work in what we now call the Rust Belt. Their time in school had been spent in the classroom, unlike my own time. They had not only gone to class, but had listened as well. I found out too late that good grades were a prerequisite for a job in Detroit, thus severely limiting my likelihood of employment with the elite. But I was happy. My bottom-tier engineering job beat the job I had on the family farm, which paid room and board, with much longer hours. But I did have to give up my really cool farmer tan. Fluorescent lights in a factory building didn’t raise the same golden glow on my skin.

After 18 months on the job and two pay raises, my salary was up to $ 850 per month. As a single guy living in a small town, I was flush. I had actual cash in my pocket, a new experience in my life. But always open to new opportunity, I saw a want ad in the local paper for engineering jobs in Los Angeles. Concerns about the growing seriousness of my relationship with a young lady along with the anticipation of a free trip and the glamour of Southern California got me to send in my resume. Weeks passed and I forgot it. As I explained earlier, a deafening silence upon receipt of my resume was not an unknown experience. Then – a telephone call. It was from the firm in Los Angeles and they actually were paying for my airplane ticket to come out for an interview.

Two months later I was in Los Angeles, Pasadena to be exact, at a new job in a different company in a different industry. My salary was now $1100 per month. Not only a major increase in salary, but now I was paid for overtime. What a concept! Neither the farm nor the first company I worked for had ever imagined the work week was limited to only forty hours. I was on top of the world with a 30% raise, before overtime. But then it happened. Out for lunch one day with my fellow engineers, I accidently found out that everybody else in the group was making $1400 per month, substantially more than I was being paid. On top of that, my fellow lunch partners were all new university graduates while I had nearly two years experience. In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten about that old good grade/bad grade divide in the workplace.

I was not a happy camper that afternoon. Or the next day. A great sense of being treated unfairly washed over me and soured my attitude for weeks.  It is easy to be philosophical about it now. After all, I had just gotten a major raise, was working at a job that I liked better, with what appeared to be much better prospects. Everything was going great, but I was quickly developing an attitude.

What’s fair? Fair is fair. Scratch the surface of an employee and entitlement pops out. Not only employees, we all have it, no matter our station in life.  We are born with a sense of entitlement to fair treatment. Perhaps it is the natural complement of our conscience, an echo of our creation. I imagine that our desire for fairness is an insight into the nature of God, for we were created in His image. It is such a basic part of who we are that it is surely His nature as well.

Most of the time our sense of fairness operates in the background like the speed limits on the roads on which we drive to work. Fairness regulates our interactions with each other. We regularly push the limits when no one is watching, but when we see the Highway Patrol, we put on the brakes. But even when we are alone on the highway, the speed limit continues to exercise some measure of restraint upon us.

We know what constitutes fair behavior, just like we know the posted speed limits, no matter what we tell the officer when an unfortunate lapse of attention puts us in the crosshairs of justice. We take fair treatment for granted until we don’t. “I am outraged! That wasn’t fair!” Whether you are five years old or fifty, you know the feeling. Our response to unfair treatment is as natural as breathing and just as automatic.

What we feel about unfairness is rage against the Machine. We think of fairness as an injustice, but it is only distantly related to Justice and all of those other Ideals. Fairness is about power. It is the language used by those without power to negotiate with those who have power. Parents have power. Children don’t. So there is a lot of talk, initiated by children, about fairness. Parents can do as they please, at least until Social Services show up, because they have the power. But the power of the parents must be balanced against the children’s view of how that power is used if the family is to be healthy. The balance of power and healthy relationships require negotiation. Negotiation requires a language that both can speak.

That language of negotiation is fairness. If those with power and those without power are going to be able to live with each other, they negotiate about fairness. Relationship equilibrium is agreement on fairness. If one of the parties comes to be convinced that the relationship is unfair, as they say, “every dog has his day”.

If we have lived long enough and have developed any self-awareness at all, we know the truth about dogs and their days. Sometimes the days are long in coming, but they inevitably come. That little girl or boy who was raised with an iron hand never brings the grandchildren around. All those young people without jobs are rioting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. That hard working employee who didn’t get the deserved promotion left in the middle of a key project and now spearheads a competitor’s move into his old employer’s best market.

In my case, I left the company that had been very good to me because of my flawed perception that I was treated unfairly. I became an entrepreneur. It turns out that entrepreneurs have an asymmetrical relationship with fairness. When we leave the campfire to wander the dark wilderness, there is no need to negotiate about fairness. Fairness is only useful in relationships. The dark has no relationships, only the simple reality, of eat, or be eaten. Gradually as time passes and the new landscape becomes more familiar, an entrepreneur forms relationships with other entrepreneurs, with suppliers and with clients. Fairness among these individuals develops, but it is the fairness of the wolf pack, directly proportional to the size of the wolf. It is all about a place at the table, or the kill. Anything outside of the next meal is not part of the deal. The intricacies of fairness that develops in our being a member of a family or a member of a company, is not relevant in the dark beyond the campfire.

But successful entrepreneurs grow. It took me a long time in the dark wilderness to understand the difference between a loner and an entrepreneur. The business world has many loners. I know because I was one for many years. I wasn’t particularly unhappy being a loner. I was a consultant, a self-employed contractor, a 1099 employee, a shopper. There are many ways of describing what I did. I was a craftsman and I practiced my craft for a number of companies at many places and times, but I was not an employee. I had my own gig.

But along the way, ambition raised its ugly head. It appears in most everyone’s life at one time or another. Rather than just smiling at the pretty face and having another beer as a wiser head might have done, I listened to her seductive whisper. Before too long, I had a company with employees. In the first thrilling days of growth, it was all good. It was a scary ride on the back of ambition to be sure, but it was the scariness of riding the big roller coasters. Adrenaline flooded my body constantly. In my mind I was surfing the North Shore, riding the waves in a winter storm with Jan & Dean’s iconic song, “Ride the Wild Surf” in my ears.

But eventually, the adrenaline burnt itself out and the surf music died away. One day I arrived at the office and an employee caught me at the coffee pot. The conversation began like many other conversations always had, with pleasantries about the weather or the commute or the football team. But then it changed with the simple phrase, “I don’t think its fair . . ..”

In my case, I didn’t even hear the rest of the sentence. All my life I had raged against the Machine. I could go from peacefully working on the task at hand to righteous indignation in a heartbeat, or less. My sense of fairness was a tripwire on carefully marked borders, set to snap at the slightest touch. In the instant of that well worn phrase, the finely calibrated line not only vanished, but I found myself on the other side of that border, a border line that was now obscured by a thick haze.

Surprise and outrage would come later. What I remember now about the walk back to my own office is the hurt. Someone I had thought of as a friend had accused me of being unfair, of abusing power, Later, I would come to realize that one of the first casualties of ambition is friendship. The language and game of fairness simply illuminated what had been dying for some time now. But that was a later understanding. That day, that conversation, was about seeing a friendly landscape now appear as a bleak and foreboding battlefield.

I had engaged in countless conversations about fair treatment around the coffee pot before, that situation certainly was not new. But this had not been a conversation, this had been a negotiation, a different thing altogether. I had just been told that I had power, and that I had used my power unfairly. Left unsaid, but clearly implied was the need for me to do something about it.

I was on the other side of the negotiation now. I had been in the working world for a long time. I was in a marriage and raising four children. I had been in management positions before my journey into the dark as well. I was no stranger to negotiation, but I had never liked it and avoided it whenever possible. As a manager, fairness had been regularly invoked in my conversations with those who worked for me, working for me as well as against me. But I now realized the great advantage that managers, as well as babysitters, have. I had used it many times. I would look people in the eye and say with as much sympathy as I could muster, “You’re right, it is unfair, but its company policy and I know they won’t change it.”

Company policy, otherwise known as the Machine or the Man, gives managers a trump card, a very useful thing to have. As we progress in life, gaining both age and experience, we learn that life in fundamentally unfair. Without exception, we all know that we are underpaid and overworked. The true value of our effort and skills are never appreciated. So fundamental to the human condition are these facts, that to say it is a bit like remarking that water flows downhill.

The very hard truth that we must all live with is that we are probably overpaid and underworked. The true value of our effort and skill is well known by those to whom we are responsible. But those are hard truths and if spoken aloud, infuriate people. It is hard to work together when everyone is angry. Rather than a healthy relationship and a good working environment, employees might go postal. It is important for those tasked with saying “no” to have someone to blame. Just simply being able to talk to each other without coming to blows requires us to lay the unfairness at someone else’s feet.

Life is unfair. Unfairness is one of those resources that we never need fear will be depleted. In the work world, managers have the duty to allocate the seemingly endless supply of unfairness. But in compensation for that duty, they can blame company policy, or the rules. Sometimes the manager confides that the unfair situation faced by the employee is due to the inscrutable capriciousness of the manager’s own boss, who by the way, is terribly unfair to the manager as well.

But the entrepreneur gives up this bottomless bucket of blame disposal. As Harry Truman noted some decades ago, “The buck stops here”. For those at the top, for the CEO or entrepreneur, there is no boss to blame. Invoking company policy is a dangerous game for the one who sets company policy. To cite company policy invites questions into how that company policy came to be or why it is the way it is. I advise you from personal experience, don’t go there, under any circumstances. Company policy is a lot like sausage, it is good to have, but it is best that no one see how it’s made.

After that conversation, I lived with the knowledge that any conversation at any time carried the possibility of a negotiation with an employee. In that negotiation, I would be limited to a yes or no answer, and that to simply say “no” risked invoking all of the consequences of dogs and their days. More than once, I reflected on the game of Chess as I left the safety of my office to get a cup of coffee. My need for coffee regularly overrode my need to avoid employees in unscripted conversations.

In the game of Chess, the Queen is by far the most powerful piece on the board. And yet the Queen is strangely vulnerable to being surprised, trapped and lost to pawns, the least powerful pieces. As a consequence, the Queen is usually kept behind strong defenses and not put into the game except in carefully thought out moves. A CEO wandering the halls of his company is very much like the Queen sitting alone in the middle of the chessboard.

It is not that I wanted to be unfair, but in a life and world overflowing with unfairness, being unfair is unavoidable. To treat everyone and every situation fairly would not only bankrupt the company; but also prove to be an impossible task. I think that almost everyone knows that and understands it, even as we talk about it in virtuous terms. But fairness is really about personal advantage. Fairness masquerades as altruism, but that is a mask. We invoke fairness when we are in the path of a power that might hurt us, or seek to manipulate that power for our own gain. The difficult task for those with power is to see that the scarce resource of fairness, or more often, the surplus of unfairness, is fairly distributed. (Irony intended.)

We know from our experience in life that fairness is a game of comparative advantage, about accumulating chips that can be cashed in.  Just as in Las Vegas, we play the game of fairness to gain as many chips as we can. In the negotiation around fairness, a quid pro quo is always in play. The employee asks a favor of the employer or asks that unfairness be redressed. The employer grants the favor or deals with the unfairness. A favor has been done, but the employer gains a chip. At some future date the employer trades in that chip with the employee for future favors. Or the employer refuses to grant the favor and suffers the consequences at the future date. Players who are slow at the game, if not simply removed from the game, often complain about the old boys club.

“How does it appear?” That is a question that an entrepreneur will learn to ask with increasing frequency. Action must be taken and decisions must be made. All of the easy decisions and the popular choices never make it to the corner office. The available fairness has all been used up long before it gets there. The decisions in the corner office are all about degrees of unfairness. All of the consequences are unfair.

We strive for fairness, but what is fair? What’s fair is fair. Fairness, just as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. How will the employee being negotiated with see this? How necessary is it for this employee to be happy in the near future? Who is going to be hurt, relatively disadvantaged, by being fair to this employee here and now? How necessary is it for the employee being hurt to be happy in the near future? How will the rest of the company see this? As a result of being fair to this employee, which employees will be asking for fair treatment next week? Machiavelli and Solomon became my mentors in this game of power.

Machiavelli is important, not because of what he actually has to say, but because of his his recognition that those who hold the top job must see the world, and their fellow employees, differently. People in the work place, as well as everywhere else, act like human beings rather than selfless beings we sometimes imagine them to be. We must be aware of how human beings actually act, rather than on our warm and fuzzy ideas about the Brotherhood of Man. If the CEO entertains unreal expectations of employee behavior, the life of the organization is very much in harm’s way.

But Solomon is even more important than Machiavelli. When we assume the role of CEO, we assume the very real power that comes with the title. We also bring along the expertise in the game of fairness that we have acquired in our own sojourn as an employee. We wouldn’t be the CEO unless we had proven unusually adept at the game. We may be a bit naive, but we soon learn the truth of Machiavelli’s insights, employees being who they are.

With few exceptions, the CEO is good at the game of fairness and the job forces constant practice. We have no real allies, only shifting alliances with those who see personal advantage in siding with us against their fellows, for now. We soon become hard and cold-eyed in the world described by Machiavelli. We accumulate chips and use them ruthlessly. The company and the people we are responsible for become little more than pieces on a chessboard, to be moved or sacrificed as we see fit. We tell ourselves that what we do is for the common good. As we sacrifice the occasional piece, it sometimes happens that the piece in question too often questioned our own fairness. Quid pro quo is fair, but not compassionate.

Solomon was no stranger to the insights attributed to Machiavelli. A cynical world finds no quarrel with his words of wisdom in the Books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. They are rightly called the Wisdom Books in the Bible. In them, Solomon tells us to be prudent and guarded in our dealings, to be careful with our trust. Solomon echoes Machiavelli, but without the cynicism.

But Solomon also adds a sense of perspective that is important for the CEO to hear. As we play the game, our vision narrows and as the intensity of the game increases, the game is all we see. We become caught up in the negotiation for advantage. We strive to pile our chips ever higher, to gain every possible advantage in our negotiations with our employees.  After all, fair is fair.

We know from his writings and from the chronicles of his reign in the Books of Kings and Chronicles that he played the game well. He piled up the chips as high as they would go. He knew how to play the game. He had it all. And yet his reflections on his own life warn those of us today with the ambition to excel at the game. In many rueful asides, he notes that the humblest in the kingdom, or the company, is often more happy, more blessed, than the most exalted. Our victories in the game are often hollow.

As CEO our will controls the companies that we run. It is our decisions that shape and determine the future of those assets. Because of this, we are prone to pride and to vaunt our ownership of that which we control. But it is Solomon who reminds us again and again that we own nothing. We are simply blessed by God with stewardship of things for a time. Whatever we build, whatever we “own”, it will someday be another’s. They may be wiser than we, or they may be fools, but it will be theirs to do with as they choose.

He also tells us, no matter how exalted our position and status, that there is another greater than ourselves. As we puff ourselves up over the acquisition of our latest pile of chips, Solomon’s words ring in our ears, “Vanity. Vanity. All is vanity”. We have been entrusted, for a time, with things not ours to keep. He reminds us to be humble. He reminds us to remember that we are only human.

One Response to “Fair Play”

  1. “one of the first casualties of ambition is friendship”

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