Chafee Wants to Be Fair to the Boss

“Fairness” is an ideal term of a sort beloved by politicians: descriptors that sound inherently positive and desirable, but that are completely subjective and can be flipped around every which way to serve any political need.  Governor Chafee’s intention to tie agency directors’ raises automatically to those secured by union workers, reported in a February 3 Providence Journal article by Katherine Gregg, is a great example:

… spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger said Chafee considers it a “matter of fairness” to give the top-tier directors in state government the same raises that other state workers receive.

Whatever the specifics of the contract negotiation process, one would think that the elected officials whom the public has entrusted with its interests would do well to have their directors on their side of the table.  If a director’s pay increase is tied with the workers’, he or she inherently becomes part of the negotiating collective to a significant degree.

On a more basic level, though, the considerations that apply to salary are not the same for directors as for workers — indeed, they may frequently be contrary.  In times of high demand for services and low availability of resources, the state will want directors to pursue the often-unpleasant goals of extracting more productivity from employees while decreasing the cost of their labor.  (That doesn’t have to be as oppressive as it sounds; automating processes, for example, could allow less-skilled employees to accomplish what high-cost employees were previously required to do.)  A director could therefore reasonably demand more money while employees make less.

Conversely, in situations in which a particular work group puts forth so much extra effort and displays such skill as to reduce the importance of the director (or to carry an incompetent one), the state may wish to give them raises while holding  their titular leader flat.

The point is that, both as an intellectual strategy and as a political rationalization, blunt reliance on “fairness” thwarts good management.  But it sounds good, whether it’s covering an inappropriate rewarding of wealthy close associates or a poorly developed management philosophy.