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Short-Term and Long-Term Fairness

It's Not Fair

Recently, the guttering on the flat above ours has become obstructed. My husband contacted our upstairs neighbour to let him know that something needed to be done, as when the rain comes down, it's now ending up in our flat. The neighbour basically wants us to sort it out.

My reaction was to say: "It's not fair! We always have to take care of everything. If it were left up to him, the whole house would fall down. We should just wait and see what he does." My husband got a bit annoyed at me. His approach was that while it might seem unfair right now, it would be much worse if we did nothing, just to prove a point - in the long term, we would be the ones to suffer as the rain would damage our flat and rot our wooden window frame, or get into the brickwork and cause issues with damp. The way he saw it was that it's better to make a small sacrifice now rather than pay a huge price later.

The result? I had to admit that my husband was right. We'll just sort it out ourselves. In the long run, it just makes more sense.

Short Term Fairness

My response was about what was fair in the short term, and had little to do with what would be fair in the long term. It was all about my pride and my - in this case - petty, individual concerns. Even if I was right and the neighbour doesn't do his fair share, is that really the important issue? Satisfying my sense of fairness would have been detrimental to the state of our home.

Yet we seem to be wired to seek short term fairness. Every kid has at some point cried out, "it's not fair!" And every parent has at some point responded, "life's not fair."

And it's not just kids who use that logic. Back when I used to teach, I would have my students play the ultimatum game. I divided the class into pairs, and one member of each pair was given an imaginary $10 bill. They could then decide how much to give their partner. In other words, they could give them anywhere from between nothing and $10. And, every semester, every year, if the offer wasn't $5 (or over), the partner would reject it. Why? Because it's not fair. Even though they would be getting free money - $1, $2, $3 or $4 is still more than nothing!

Once again, short term fairness won out over long term gain.

But that was just a game.

In a recent article, James Surowiecki ("The Fairness Trap") shows how this dedication to short term fairness is playing havoc on our lives here in Europe. Writing about the crisis in Greece, he says:

Europe isn’t arguing just about what the most sensible economic policy is. It’s arguing about what is fair. German voters and politicians think it’s unfair to ask Germany to continue to foot the bill for countries that lived beyond their means and piled up huge debts they can’t repay. They think it’s unfair to expect Germany to make an open-ended commitment to support these countries in the absence of meaningful reform. But Greek voters are equally certain that it’s unfair for them to suffer years of slim government budgets and high unemployment in order to repay foreign banks and richer northern neighbors, which have reaped outsized benefits from closer European integration. The grievances aren’t unreasonable, on either side, but the focus on fairness, by making it harder to reach any kind of agreement at all, could prove disastrous.

Here again, should short term fairness really be the issue?

I think when we talk about fairness, we really need to establish whether this is short-termism, where it really is just about our pride, our individual concerns, or whether it is long-term fairness.

So what is long-term fairness?

Long Term Fairness

Long term fairness is really about the big picture. In other words, it will focus more on the needs of a group or community, and it will focus on the long-term.

Framed within these parameters, it's easy to see that in my example, doing whatever it takes to ensure that our home is in good nick is much more fair to my family over the years to come, than that I do nothing because the neighbour ought to do something. The latter of course is often known as "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

Fairness in the Workplace

I hear about the lack of fairness often in the work I do, whether it is helping companies to engage their staff, or during difficult change processes.

More often than not, the perceived unfairness is due entirely to a lack of good communication about the change process and what it entails.

Decision-making is seen as unfair when staff think the decision is knee-jerk; when they think it is aimed at them personally; when they cant see negative impacts upon themselves as the goal of change, rather than a repercussion of change; and when the decision-making process is communicated poorly.

In fact, when the decision-making process is communicated poorly, it will directly lead to questions of short-term fairness - in other words, it will be of the "why me?" variety, and more often than not, the reaction will be a drop in morale, with its associated drop in productivity. And of course it will spread, as the affected employees tell their stories.

Fairness and Employee Engagement

At best, focusing on the short-term will be ineffective. At worst, it will actively disengage staff and everyone will be worse off.

As Surowiecki concludes in his article,

From the perspective of society as a whole, concern with fairness has all kinds of benefits: it limits exploitation, promotes meritocracy, and motivates workers. But in a negotiation where neither side can have what it really wants, and where the least bad solution is as good as it gets, worrying too much about fairness can be suicidal.

The goal for any company, then, should be to help staff understand change in the context of long-term fairness. Redundancy or TUPE may hurt individual employees, but if the employer can show how the decision was the best option for ensuring the long term survival of the company - and therefore saving the greatest number of jobs - then employees will start to look at the big picture and recognise that though they don't like the change and how it impacts them personally, they can understand why it has to happen.

I have to concede that if more people thought like my husband - having a focus on getting things done with an eye on the best possible future - the world would be in a better place.

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