Not all employers play fair

Recently, my extended family joined me for an all-too-brief summer get-together in San Francisco. On one particularly foggy day, Samantha, my 12-year-old niece, turned to her 20-year-old cousin, Matthew, and announced that while they were waiting for lunch they would play keep-away.

Speaking with a great deal of authority, Samantha announced the rules that would make the game fair. Six-foot-three Matthew would need to sit on the carpet in the middle of the room, while she would go to the other end of the room and kneel. Kathryn, age 6, would stand by the door with plenty of room to throw, and Ashley, 4, would sit in the big chair by the door and catch.

Matthew, having met his equal in the world of keep-away, agreed. Samantha began by tossing the green Nerf ball over Matthew’s head to her sisters, and the girls managed to keep the ball away from him until the PB&J and chocolate milk were ready.

As I prepared the sandwiches in the next room, I couldn’t help but think about Samantha’s view of fairness. The game was clearly equalized, with tall, skinny Matthew, seat plastered to the carpet, straining to reach the ball. I was impressed with Samantha’s ability to command a room and keep the game fun for her little sisters. And I had to smile, since as an adult I know that life isn’t fair, no matter how well we command the room.

When it comes to outsourcing, whether that involves shipping work elsewhere in the U.S. or overseas, the employers that we choose to work for don’t always seem to play fair. Of course, what’s fair to you may not be fair to me, so to illustrate what I think is fair, I will use words that rely on a time-based viewpoint. I will define fair as a balanced, long-term perspective, and unfair as a short-term, less-balanced perspective.

Short-term companies are those that focus on how much money can be made as soon as possible. In the most extreme cases, short-term companies are only about today’s cash position. For these companies, outsourcing, especially overseas outsourcing, isn’t an investment — it’s a way to cut costs today. For employees working in these companies, it’s sometimes frighteningly obvious that domestic workers are an undesired expense.

Other companies have a long-term perspective and see costs, including employee costs, as an investment. These companies may still choose to outsource, but if they do, they’ll structure the work and the agreements to reflect a long-term strategy, developing disciplined processes over time that change in response to their experiences. If you’ve worked only in short-term companies and are curious as to what attributes a long-term company displays, read Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Built to Last.

Some believe that short-term thinking is what capitalism is all about. As an economist, I don’t agree. A free market allows companies to look to the short term and to profit or not accordingly. It also allows those that look to the long term to profit or not as well. It’s fabulous that we live in a country that allows companies and employees to choose, and then to act accordingly. Life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean you need to work for someone focused only on the short term.

Virginia Robbins is CIO and managing director at Chela Education Financing in San Francisco. Contact her at [email protected].

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