workplace ethics

Workplace ethics: Making fair management decisions

Workplace ethics: Making fair management decisions

Every management role requires decisions to be made that involve the allocation of “scarce resources”. For example, there may be an opportunity for up-skilling, promotion, salary increase or exposure to new technologies, but this opportunity can only be provided to a limited number of team members.

When faced with these decisions, we are sometimes tempted to do a “good deed” and tip the scales in favour of people who we see as being disadvantaged. We may feel that by doing so, we increase the overall balance of good in the world, and can redress wrongs that have been done to this person previously.

In reality however, by tipping the odds in favour of the person who we perceive as disadvantaged, we decrease the chances of the other employees, who are now unable to compete on an even footing.

A story: It was late in the afternoon when the loudspeaker called me to my final duty. The Family Pets contestants were arranged on wooden chairs drawn up in a wide circle on the turf. They were mainly children but behind them an interested ring of parents and friends watched me warily as I arrived…

The fashion of exotic pets was still in its infancy but I experienced a mild shock of surprise when I saw the variety of creatures on show. I suppose I must have had a vague mental picture of a few dogs and cats but I walked round the circle in growing bewilderment looking down at rabbits— innumerable rabbits of all sizes and colours—guinea pigs, white mice, several budgerigars, two tortoises, a canary, a kitten, a parrot, a Mynah bird, a box of puppies, a few dogs and cats and a goldfish in a bowl. The smaller pets rested on their owners’ knees, the others squatted on the ground.

How, I asked myself, was I going to come to a decision here? How did you choose between a parrot and a puppy, a budgie and a bulldog, a mouse and a Mynah? Then as I circled it came to me; it couldn’t be done. The only way was to question the children in charge and find which ones looked after their pets best, which of them knew most about their feeding and general husbandry. I rubbed my hands together and repressed a chuckle of satisfaction; I had something to work on now…

Among the throng there was one who stood out; the little boy with the goldfish. In reply to my promptings he discoursed knowledgeably about his fish, its feeding, life history and habits. He even had a fair idea of the common diseases. The bowl, too, was beautifully clean and the water fresh; I was impressed. When I had completed the circuit I swept the ring for the last time with a probing eye. Yes, there was no doubt about it; I had the three prize winners fixed in my mind beyond any question and in an order based on strictly scientific selection.

I stepped out into the middle. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, scanning the company with an affable smile… “These are the successful entrants. First, number six, the goldfish. Second, number fifteen, the guinea pig. And third, number ten, the white kitten.”

I half expected a little ripple of applause but there was none. In fact my announcement was greeted by a tight-lipped silence. I had noticed an immediate change in the atmosphere when I mentioned the goldfish. It was striking— a sudden cold wave which swept away the expectant smiles and replaced them with discontented muttering…

I was about to leave when a snatch of conversation from behind made me pause. “A bloody goldfish!” a voice was saying disgustedly. “Aye, it’s a rum ‘un, George,” a second voice replied. There was a slurping sound of beer being downed. “But tha knows, Fred,” the first voice said. “That vet feller had to do it. Didn’t ‘ave no choice. He couldn’t pass over t’squire’s son.”…

I fought down a rising panic… I clutched at Tristan’s arm. “Who is that little boy over there?” Tristan peered out glassily across the sward. “The one with the goldfish bowl, you mean?” “That’s right.” “It’s young Nigel Pelham, the squire’s son.”…

George was at it again. “Lovely dogs and cats there was, but squire’s lad won it with a bloody goldfish.” “Well let’s be right,” his companion put in. “If that lad ‘ad brought along a bloody stuffed monkey he’d still ‘ave got fust prize with it.”… There was a gloomy silence punctuated by noisy gulpings. Then, in weary tones: “Well you and me can’t alter it. It’s the kind of world we’re living in today.”
All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Herriot

The moral: Everyone understands that giving preferential treatment to “important people” undermines the good feeling in society. However giving preferential treatment to disadvantaged people can also mean that the other contestants no longer have a fair chance of winning.

Another issue is that the selection of the winner now depends on the personal feelings of the person making the decisions, since they will make their own assessment of who is disadvantaged.

Frank is asked to be the judge in a piano contest; contestant No. 1 is middle-aged, arrogant, well-to-do and brilliant. Contestant No. 2 is young, timid, hard-up and not quite as talented as No. 1. The prize money for the competition is $100,000.

After No. 1 and No. 2 have played their pieces, Frank feels that No. 1 gave the better performance overall… To Frank’s surprise, as he is about to follow the rules of the competition and declare No. 1 the winner, he finds balance-of-good considerations welling up within him… there are all those good things that would ensue if No. 2 received the prize. Young talent would be encouraged, No. 2’s fragile self-esteem would be bolstered, he would be liberated from having to wait on tables to make ends meet, and so forth…

After a few minutes of such balance-of-good reflections, Frank makes his decision. He declares No. 2 the winner, his unstated reason being that the sum of life-goods and evils that will ensue from this declaration clearly outweighs in worth that of the life-goods and evils that would ensue from declaring No. 1 the winner.

I hold that even if Frank was correct in his judgment that greater good would be achieved by declaring No. 2 the winner, he should not have done what he did… No. 1 had a right to be declared winner. In addition to weighing up life-goods and evils, Frank should have taken note of a moral consideration of a different order; he should have asked himself whether, in declaring No. 2 the winner, he would be depriving No. 1 of what he had a moral right to.

Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff

It is sometimes better to aim for the best localised outcome, rather than trying to rectify life’s inconsistencies by using our decision making authority.

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