Fair and Consistent By Bill Catlette
August 2005

To access this article on the internet instead of reading it through email, go to http://www.contentedcows.com/200508fr.html.

In this issue...
  • Help Wanted!
  • Fair and Consistent
  • Myth Shattered: We can't afford to bring these guys in to speak to our group!
  • Buy the Book or CD at the Cow Store

  • Help Wanted!

    For those of you who have been kind enough to inquire, we are, indeed, still working on our book on the topic of Discretionary Effort.

    At this juncture, we'd like to pick the brains of our readers.

    Here's what we need from you:

    Stories, examples, people, and specific incidents that pertain to Discretionary Effort - either its expenditure, or cases where people were clearly withholding it.

    If you'll go to this page on our website, you'll find a full explanation of the term Discretionary Effort, and some guidelines as to what we're looking for.

    This is your chance to be heard, and perhaps to have your input included in our forthcoming book.

    We look forward to hearing from you. ALL of you!


    Bill and Richard

    Fair and Consistent

    By Bill Catlette

    Early in my career as an HR professional I learned the mantra of all good HR people: Whatever you do, you must ensure that employees are treated fairly and consistently. The operative term was fairly AND (not or) consistently. It's a mindset that stuck with me for a long time, and I really never thought about it very hard. Oh, there were those occasional episodes when doing the fair thing seemed about to collide with consistency (or common sense), but somehow it was always possible to wiggle or rationalize just enough to make things come out, or so I thought. Years later, usually after a conversation with some overly explicit line manager who found it necessary to remind me what idiots we HR people were, I began to plumb the murky depths of this 'fair and consistent doctrine' a bit further. What I found was, well, in a word, bothersome.

    Working principally at firms with an avowed desire to remain union-free provided regular feeding for the consistency side of this equation. Much of our work after all was guided by the then prevailing dogma which suggested that the best way to remain union- free was to act like you already had one. Translation - treat everybody the same, no matter what.

    One day back then, I found my boss, the company's Director of Labor Relations (where did we get those job titles anyhow?) in a totally ballistic state. A pretty cool character hardened by the Marines, and regular skirmishes with one union or another, it was unusual to find him in this condition so I asked what was the matter. It seems that he had just encountered one of the company's co- founders, a guy named Henry, walking aimlessly through the office handing out $50 bills to long service employees whom he recognized. Nothing terribly scientific or well planned, just a guy trying to recognize those who had served faithfully for many years.

    My boss, a guy named Lou, pulled the offending founder aside and pointed out that he couldn't just walk around the office singling out employees for these on-the-spot bonuses. After all, what he gave to one he must give to everybody. He must be consistent, because to do otherwise would bring into play that other word that starts with "f"... favoritism. (I know what you were thinking, and it's not nice.) Though he was very good at winning representation elections (and a great guy to work for), Lou had a habit of doing other things that pretty well guaranteed that he had reached the zenith of his career with the company. Telling a co-founder what he could and couldn't do with his company was one of those things.

    Henry's reaction was to 1) remind him of their respective links in the food chain and 2) furnish him with a note that, when taken to the CFO, would equip him with enough cash to similarly reward any (and every) employee who even dreamt of complaining about the disparate treatment. From that day on, with a special cylinder lock freshly installed on his office door, Lou kept a drawer full of $50's for such an occasion. After all, even if the founder had been a little premature and unstructured in launching his version of the employee service award program, we were going to be consistent, by golly.

    Fair and consistent - are they worthy guideposts in the everyday world of managerial decision making? You betcha. Do problems arise in trying to be at once both 'fair' and 'consistent'? You betcha again.

    What is 'fair' anyhow? It kinda depends on whom you ask, and what the circumstances are, doesn't it? Some would say that to be fair is to be just. Maybe. Go ask some of Johnny Cochran or Bob Bennett's clients if they want justice (fairness). My bet is that's about the last thing many of them want. Freedom would be a bit more attractive to them than a scrupulously fair trial. Think of the conundrum the US went through in trying to 'fairly' decide the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Yuck!

    I looked the word up in my dictionary (Webster's Collegiate - 10th Edition) and didn't get much help there, either. On one hand it uses terms like impartiality, honesty, and free from self-interest. Then, it suggests that fairness is a matter of "conforming with the established rules", however egregious or nonsensical they may be. I'm starting to get, in addition to a headache, a pretty good idea where the 'consistent' part of the doctrine came from. Since 'fair' is so damned difficult to figure out, maybe we oughta just be consistent. It's sooooo much easier. Just ask any parent who has at least 2 kids.

    I'd like to take a stab at this conundrum, for better or worse. It seems reasonable to say that people like (and deserve) to be treated with some element of consistency. More specifically, unless we're the ones on the receiving end of some undeserved preferential consideration, we get upset when, under like circumstances, we don't get treated like the next guy. If my neighbor and I are each on the way home from work, doing 15 mph over the speed limit, and we both get pulled over for speeding, I'd like to believe that the ticket and fine we both get is the same. If I find that he got off and I was ticketed and fined $120, I may be happy for him, but I'm perturbed by the lack of consistency. Alternatively, if I'm on the way to work and he's on the way to the nearest hospital, transporting his mother who is suffering chest pains, I can see my way around the fact that our circumstances are not the same.

    Quite frankly my concern is that, in an attempt to idiot-proof managerial decision making and ward off claims of favoritism, too often we have taken the easy way out and opted for 'consistency', when the use of a modicum of judgment (faulty as it occasionally is) would, over time, yield a better outcome. The same could perhaps be said for our precedent-based judicial system.

    Following are a few acts of preventive maintenance we think will serve your organization well:

    1. On the premise that policies are, by definition, things that encourage us to be consistent, we should periodically examine them, for fairness, utility, reasonableness, and clarity. Here's a thought - On a regular (at least annual) basis, take a hard look at your policy manual. Whether it's a book, booklet, or just a file of papers shoved in a drawer somewhere, pull that sucker out and examine it. Treat this exercise just like your physician does your annual physical. First thing, put it on your handy Pitney Bowes postage scale and weigh it (for real). If we're talking pounds instead of ounces, kilos instead of grams, or if the thing has inexplicably gained weight over the past year, we've got the makings of a problem, don't we?

    2. Continuing with the physical exam, check the document's cholesterol level. Ask a few people with about an 8th grade reading comprehension level to read it over, and then check for comprehension. (No, you don't have to actually mention to these folks that they are participating in an idiot-proofing exercise.) If, like a lot of organizations, you've got lawyers actively involved in drafting or reviewing policy, the thing may more closely resemble a car rental contract (did you ever actually read every word - front and back on one of those things?) than something that is supposed to be a management tool. If what you see doesn't pass the smell test for simplicity, insist that it be rewritten.

    3. Next, look at the overall context of the contents. Do they serve to define a few core principles the organization feels strongly about, or instead, to virtually shut off managerial thinking. By way of example, I knew it was time to leave my last employer when a Sr. VP explained to me (with a straight face) that unless a corporate policy expressly indicated that an individual could exercise judgment in a given matter, then their gray matter was not to be engaged in the issue. My thoughts turned instantly to the wonderful training film, Brain Power, starring John Houseman wherein he admonishes managers that "You get paid to think." Thankfully, I soon found the courage to tell 'Mr. Empowerment' that my talents would henceforth be used elsewhere.

    4. Now, get specific. Look hard, real hard for the stinkers that just don't make sense any more. Travel & Entertainment and Compensation/Benefit Policies and Programs are a great place to start. I frequently tell a story in speeches about the T&E policy one of our clients has. Since you happen to be sitting in the cheap seats at the moment you won't hear it, but the upshot of this organization's travel policy is that all (repeat, ALL) meal expenditures must be receipted via an American Express chit in order to be reimbursed. Unless you happen to be an American Express shareholder, think about the sheer lunacy of that little jewel for a moment. My bet is they wind up paying for a lot of steaks when all the person really wanted was a hotdog from a street vendor who didn't accept plastic.

    Folks, that's it for this issue of Fresh Milk. Stay cool, stay sensible, and stay tuned.

    Myth Shattered: We can't afford to bring these guys in to speak to our group!

    The fact is - you probably can't afford not to. We don't publish our fees online, but we'll be glad to talk with you about what it costs to have one of us come and speak for your company or professional association. And we'll bet it's not as much as you think.

    If you want a return on the speaker investment from your next meeting, consider whether you want a funny motivational speaker, or a high-content speaker who's funny and motivational.

    Our clients repeatedly remark on the take- home value we provide in our customized programs.

    You may be able to hire bigger names, at bigger fees, but you can't hire a speaker who will show up better prepared to make you look good, and to help your audience create a great, and more profitable, workplace.

    To find out more about bringing in one or both of the authors to speak for your association conference, or corporate meeting, click on the "Find Out More" link below. OR, pick up the phone, and call our office at 800-940-7006 (that's 904-720-0870 from outside North America). Or, send us an email and let us know how we can be of service. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Buy the Book or CD at the Cow Store
    Volume Discounts!

    Contented Cows Give Better Milk makes the business case for creating an exceptional workplace. Available directly from the authors, both in paperback and audio book on CD, for less than you'll pay in most bookstores. Signed copies available at no additional cost. Visit the Contented Cows Online Store.

    Resources to make yours a Contented Cows workplace

    Buy the book/CD or Downloadable Articles Online

    Employee Opinion Surveys

    Hire Bill and/or Richard to speak for your next meeting

    Check our schedule

    Interview Guide: "Finding Great People"

    Join our mailing list!
    phone: 800-940-7006 or 904-720-0870
    Email Marketing by