From public strikes and new income tax proposals to debates over the transparency of milk prices, fairness is becoming the benchmark against which positions are being tested with increasing frequency.
And yet the desire of business to be seen as fair, is often being met with a sceptical eye. In launching its Great Business Debate, the CBI reported that only 32% of people think that the majority of British businesses behave ethically.
It is strange to think that a company might not fit that description, but the concept of a ‘fair business’ is still in its infancy, relatively speaking.
Jeremy Corbyn was elected on a mandate of ‘fair politics’ – of running his team equitably and democratically, with every MP able to express a view openly, whatever the party’s policies.
But could such an approach work in business? Can every worker have a point of view and really expect it to make a difference? Perhaps the fact that the Labour leader has reshuffled his cabinet to bring more supporters into his circle of trust is evidence enough that the realities of politics and the perceived benefits of fairness do not always match.
Doing the right thing is not a choice – was it ever? – but nor is there a black-and-white roadmap for every business owner to follow.
Disputes and debates around fairness tend to encounter grey areas, where perception and reality differ. This can be difficult to navigate thanks to the increasing amount of regulation and legalisation in place to protect the principles of fairness.
That divergence of perspective is often coloured by the ‘cost’ to business of implementing ‘fair business’. The newly introduced requirement for larger businesses to report on the gender pay gap is a good example.
The gender pay gap is decreasing but remains a challenge for society as a whole to overcome. The rate of change is too slow for most and reports have shown that the UK is far from leading the field in this respect. Nobody in business argues against it, even though preparing for change requires time and investment. The cost to business is perceived to be worth it – nobody can countenance doing nothing at all.
But such examples are rare in business. In many cases, ‘fair business’ is a case of perception, of market forces and consumer demand. Organic and Fairtrade supply chains have been built on a groundswell of support from people and businesses who want to consume or purchase products supplied in the ‘right way’.
Often disputes arise when expectations do not match some of the realities of business practice, with no more common example than that of remuneration.
The living wage is broadly heralded as a ‘good thing’, but it is also a ‘costly thing’ and, in the view of some, an ‘unwelcome’ thing. So when the TUC suggests, as it did recently, that the living wage is not enough to ensure fair pay for its members, it encounters both a broad base of support and its fair share of incredulity as many in the private sector struggle to manage downward pressures on their finances.
Politics can often play a role, too. The clamour to preserve the steel industry after Tata Steel slashed its workforce in the wake of extremely difficult market conditions outlines the responsibilities of large employers. Much of the rhetoric, however, has been socio-economic in tone: the pure financial arguments are not so relevant.
So what makes ‘fair business’ achievable?
Being clear is a good place to start: the more explicit your argument, the more understandable your position.
In law, for example, we know that clarity is fundamental to great advice. We make a promise to give clear advice, but then back that up in our billing arrangements, too. Nobody likes an unexpected bill – it undermines confidence and our personal relationships – so if a client receives an invoice for a fee they did not expect, we don’t expect them to pay it, and guarantee that.
Clarity of this nature could help resolve all kinds of disputes.
What if the terms of the Government’s pay deal for junior doctors were published, as were those of the British Medical Association, in a simple to digest format?
Clarity breeds confidence and trust – so there is no better place to start if we truly want to achieve fair business for all.