One Piece to the Puzzle: Internal Impartiality

1 June 2020 | 18 Comments

Have you ever received or granted special treatment within your organization?

At the root of the problem of systemic issues (e.g., racism and sexism) are many, many factors. I can’t even begin to understand or list all of those factors. Despite my focus on inclusion, I fully acknowledge that I’m part of the problem too, and I’m striving not to be (and to be better informed and to be part of the solution).

Of those many factors, there’s one that I’d like to offer my perspective on today, something to consider for my fellow entrepreneurs, creators, and leaders. It seems to me that nothing good comes of an organization trying to protect employees who have acted unethically, immorally, and even illegally.

Historically, we’ve seen this across a vast number of organizations, many of them in positions of power and authority: Law enforcement, military, religious institutions, corporations, governing bodies, etc. An employee, coworker, or boss does something terribly wrong, and instead of confronting the issue in the same way you would with someone outside the organization, you cover it up or transfer them (or, in the case of the officers complicit in killing George Floyd, fire them instead of charging them with murder).

Another way to put it is to remember whom you’re here to serve. I care deeply about the people Stonemaier Games employs (1 other full time and 2 part time) and contracts (many independent contractors), and I’m at least partially responsible for some of their income, health care, and happiness. But ultimately, our collective goal is to serve our customers by bringing joy to tabletops worldwide. If the actions of an employee, contractor, or myself prevents us from achieving that goal, that’s a problem.

I understand that it’s the instinct of people in power–even those with the best intentions–to protect their employees. That’s my instinct too. But in the rare cases when there is the possibility that someone isn’t serving our customers or acting ethically, I try as hard as possible to put aside those instincts and view the situation impartially.

It goes the other way too. I want the people with whom I work to challenge me if they ever think I’m acting in poor faith. And they have! They know not to give me special treatment.

I honestly think that if all organizations acted impartially and responsibly whenever a member of that organization screws up, the world would be a much better place. Let’s hold ourselves and the people we work with to a higher standard, not exempt them from the same ethics we expect from strangers. I’m not saying this would even come close to solving systemic issues, but I believe it is one piece to a much larger puzzle.

How do you approach or address bad behavior within your organization?

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18 Comments on “One Piece to the Puzzle: Internal Impartiality

  1. I’m very fortunate to work as a nuclear engineer and project manager in one of the largest utilities in America. We have a wide array of diverse backgrounds from Central America to Zimbabwe and beyond working together in good harmony. There’s very little subjective preferential treatment because the overall work culture is simple… come in and do your job to the best of your ability. People just want to feel accepted, appreciated for their talents, feel like they contribute each day, and go home to enjoy life and family. It’s quite fascinating actually!… politics are left at the door, respect is common-place, cultural differences don’t interfere, and there’s no detectable hint a racial tensions anywhere. However, i understand this doesn’t reflect many facets of society.

    Long before this, I lived in the inner city of Columbus Ohio… the largest city in Ohio and NOT a nice place. I saw (and sadly took part in) all kinds of illegal, immoral activity. Police, rightly so, needed a culture of camaraderie and trust… they needed to watch out for one-another. That said, the actions of the officers in the George Floyd case crossed a line and should be punished to the maximum extent of the law… police culture should change such that that dividing line, across which lies unethical and criminal behavior, shall be held to the strictest adherence and accountability.

    But this is only half the story… if inner-cities can’t progress beyond a culture of guns/drugs/violence, this entire story will just repeat itself in due time. Unfortunately, the current climate of our country is unable to talk about all sides of the issue without the media labeling people as “racist” for wanting to do so.

    Camden NJ reformed its police dept. some years ago and the city now has a progressing, encouraging relationship with its citizens. Perhaps if the main stream media started promoting some of these success stories instead of blindly spreading hatred of Trump, we’d actually get somewhere…

    1. Hi John,

      I have to say I’m really surprised to read about your experience.
      The reason I’m surprised is that I have a very different experience than you. I work for a large travel company that values diversity and inclusion. As an employee I would have said that there was no impartiality or discrimination or racial tension. But then I became a manager of a team. The team had people from many ethnic backgrounds. I tried to learn about different cultures and started asking questions to my team. I found out that the Indian woman was uncomfortable with how I praised individual people on the team (group vs individual culture). I received feedback from all of my African American associates that they were frustrated that I wasn’t more direct(cultural preference for direct vs indirect communication). The woman from Eastern Europe felt she wasn’t getting promoted because her accent sounded angry. I struggled to decide if I should hire a white college student whose father worked in the company and was highly recommended (was it nepotism). This was all in the middle of a company and a team who was trying to be inclusive, who was doing its best not to discriminate. And I got to tell you, we talked, we listened, we tried things, we failed, we cried, we changed things, and in the end my team loved the culture we had created and I got to see most of my team promoted. But it was hard and it took deliberate work.

      So I have two follow up questions for you:
      1. What do the people from the variety of backgrounds say? Do they say there’s no hint of racial tension and that they feel like they are treated impartially?
      2. If so, what actions did your work place take to instill this culture when our broader society has not?

      1. Hi Jessica,

        Thank you very much for your response and perspective! Trust me, I’m surprised by my own experience as well… I see it as an example of optimism.

        Without getting into boring detail, the commercial nuclear industry is quite different than anything else I’ve experienced (been there 10 years this month). There are SO many requirements, regulations, and rules that each individual has been forced to become a subject matter expert in one or more aspects of the organization. These niches are so important that even our highest site management approaches expertise with a humble attitude. In short, each person has become very important in their roles that we have no choice but to operate with respect for each other’s contribution. Since the overriding principal of nuclear safety is highly emphasized (just imagine the ramifications of a nuclear incident), there’s little room to focus on arbitrary differences in culture/race/background, etc…. sounds crazy but it’s really like that. Of-course, I can’t speak for upper corporate management or non-nuclear areas of the company.

        To answer your question: Racial/cultural tension in the workplace? I’ve never asked directly but it doesn’t show if it exists. How can I tell? People are friendly, respectful, humble, always willing (and are happy to) help, they laugh together, collaborate well, work effectively to solve problems… and their body language/facial expressions genuinely reflect that. I don’t even recall hearing any kind-of off-hand subtle race/culture related jokes or remarks. It’s just not prevalent in our working culture. Are they treated impartially? Absolutely! Recognition is based on merit because, well, there isn’t need to base it on anything else… I’ve never seen someone promoted just because they’re white or black or a women. Our corporate head of nuclear is a black man, our site VP is a well-respected woman, our CEO is a woman… I have no reason to believe they got there based on anything other than merit (although, I’m not privy to, nor naive to, the inner workings of the “golden parachute” club of upper management…)

        What actions did my workplace instill? Nothing… but there’s a reason I say that. After the Three-Mile-Island nuclear accident in 1979, a culture centered around nuclear safety evolved. This safety culture became so focused that there was very little room for focusing on anything else. Many of the racial/cultural issues faced in other industries today simply gained little traction in my workplace in the face of this fact. Whereas opinions and thoughts around these issues certainly exist, they don’t cause tension nor affect the workplace in any appreciable way.

        To boil it down, it’s a paradox. Is it possible in many places racial and cultural tension exist and grow simply because someone continues to talk about racial and cultural tensions? Is it a self-fulfilling prophesy? Perhaps in some places… and this doesn’t dismiss the very real tensions in places today. Not an easy topic but one we’ll never solve until we actually analyze the possibilities.

        1. Thank you for taking the time John to answer my questions….And I don’t think it could possibly be boring talking about the details of the nuclear industry :)
          As I read your answer I see two principles that work together.
          1. Deep respect for others unique contributions
          2. A shared commitment to a specific goal

          These things aren’t always present in business. It can be easy to relegate someone to being just a cog in the machine or simplifying the goal to making a profit.
          The shared goal must be so strong and important to the business that people will overcome all the obstacles of working together and communicating together to meet that goal. And now to bring us full circle. The goal must have an ethical/moral aspect that hinges on respect for others.
          If ethical action isn’t intrinsic to the goal then it’s easier to justify actting unethically in order to bring it about.
          Lots for me to think about!

          1. Your story makes me think too… I’m glad to know that people can still share ideas, thoughts, and concerns in an objective manner and learn from each other’s experiences. If we, as a society, lose the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue, I fear it would lead to a long hard path ahead. Thanks!

  2. “I try as hard as possible to put aside those instincts and view the situation impartially.” While I firmly believe in you when it comes to this aspect of being a leader, what can we do to ensure that other leaders are acting in this way? After reading some of the articles you’ve written, it seems that you have clear intention to continue to better yourself as a leader. What can be said for those who don’t have that drive? For those who have questionable ethics in leadership roles?

    Poor leadership seems to stay until something within a company or institution finally boils over and by that point the damage done. Preventative care seems to be needed but how can it be administered?

    1. I like those questions, Justin. I’ll do my best to answer them in brief (though I think there are many ways to do this, some more effective than others)..

      “While I firmly believe in you when it comes to this aspect of being a leader, what can we do to ensure that other leaders are acting in this way?”

      One way is for leaders to inspire each other through words (like this blog post) and actions. When I see other leaders sharing and practicing what they preach, I try to be a better leader myself.

      “What can be said for those who don’t have that drive? For those who have questionable ethics in leadership roles?”

      If there’s someone like that at your organization, hopefully there are official avenues of pursuing action and positive change. If they’re at another organization, one way is to share the facts about that business and stop supporting them.

      I welcome answers from other people too!

  3. I think that in the case of the officers involved in the George Floyd killing, the boss only had two actions he/she can take. One is firing the officers, because a video tape is enough evidence for that, and the other is initiating an internal investigation to decide if the excessive force is a crime. I don’t think that the police typically just take officers into custody when there is a video tape that looks damning. It took 5 days from the crime to the arrest which seems fast for that type of thing (from what we have seen in past police officer arrests). Your point is valid but that example is not the best one.

    As for corporations treating higher-ups in a different way from the lower-downs, some of that can be attributed to compensation. When A person earns more pay, they often earn more vacation time, better benefits, and a little slack when it comes to getting back to work a little late after taking a lunch break. This sort of thing is even built into employment laws where some employees get paid per hour and their hours are well regulated, including the aforementioned lunch break, and some employees get paid a salary and sometimes work less hours and take long lunches because their job allows for that. Those higher up employees came at a high price and often their training, if they worked up to their position at a company, means they would be extremely expensive to replace. Economically, some people are actually expendable to a corporation since losing them has little or no impact to a company. Losing someone who is highly trained as has a lot of experience at a company can cost many times their yearly pay if they leave; A product release might even get delayed in some cases.

    I am pro-people and pro-employee. I have taken a pay cut in order to keep someone at my company from losing their job. Everyone took a cut for that three months when things were tough so that every one of us could keep our jobs. I don’t claim that it is morally or ethically right to treat some employees better than others, and it’s certainly never right to not report actual crimes or to accept extreme or immoral behavior. But some people do seem to earn the right to special treatment as much as they earn the right to a higher pay check in our society. I don’t know if it’s possible to get rid of that because that special treatment is something that any people might aspire to get.

    If we hold those we work with to the same standard as strangers, are we not telling the people around us that we are as loyal to them as a stranger? A persons co-workers can feel like a family and the workplace can feel like a home. But if we push towards treating our family at our home the same way we treat strangers, it could breed distrust. it could just make people leave that workplace and move to a place that is more like a family where a person feels wanted and trusted.

    These are just thoughts that came to me while reading your post. I can’t say I’ve given it all enough thought to form a strong and justifiable opinion. And I certainly am playing the devil’s advocate since that’s how my mind works when I read someone’s opinions on things this complicated. So don’t take this as disagreement. Just take it as food for thought. I’m not even really sure if Derek Chauvin got arrested insanely fast or if he could have been arrested a few days earlier. I’m just glad he’s been arrested and charged with murder. It will be nice if we end up in a future where excessive force is not tolerated by those in charge (or even promoted as is done by our current president, ugh).


    P.S. when I sit around wanting to play a real board game but can’t because of the social distancing thing, I think about Tapestry. That game vexes me and I love it. I was able to convince my kid to play a game of Wingspan even though she really doesn’t like any board games much.

    1. Dave: That’s a really interesting question about loyalty. For me, here’s how I view loyalty (via an example/analogy): Every now and then I hear/read someone say that they’ll buy any game I design or publish. It’s meant as a compliment, and I’m flattered by the sentiment. However, my reaction–and often my response is–I appreciate your trust in me and our products. But I don’t want blind loyalty. I want you to hold me accountable for every product we release, as I don’t want to ever take your trust for granted. I would apply the same sentiment internally to Stonemaier Games, friends, and family.

  4. “I honestly think that if all organizations acted impartially and responsibly whenever a member of that organization screws up, the world would be a much better place.”

    This is so true, and at the same time so very, very hard. We as humans tend to instinctively think and act emotionally, rather than rationally—and we want to protect the people in our care. Reality is proximal. I find it helpful to have a rubric to run through in my mind when I’m trying to remain impartial. It would be interesting to adopt some of these into an organizational code of conduct…

    So I try to ask myself:

    What information must I get to take this action that I don’t already have?

    What questions am I not asking myself or others—are there variables I’m not seeing or considering yet?

    Is the action I’m considering wise? How would other people I consider wise approach this decision? How is it going to affect me in the short/long term? Does one of those weigh more importantly than the other?

    Is the action I’m considering fair to everyone involved? Who else is affected by it? Am I hurting some people disproportionately? Am I acting in good faith? Am I respecting the time, property, and health of everyone that may be impacted by this choice?

    Am I acting to the correct degree, or am I over/under reacting to a situation? Am I acting from a place of self-control and discipline, or am I being pulled along by my desires and emotions? Will the action I’m considering throw some aspect of my life out of balance? Am I being rushed into a decision? How does that affect the choice I’m making?

    Am I acting with the appropriate amount of courage, or am I acting (or not acting) from a place of fear, or my own giant ego? Am I overconfident in a particular expected result, or do I fear consequences even though I know what I’m doing is right? Is a fear of failure holding me back?

    This usually at least helps me to identify some of my blind spots and be a little more impartial—but I don’t always succeed, or even remember to to this. It’s good that we all contintue to try and improve though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, I really appreciate it!

  5. Interesting post, Jamey. I think part of the issue here is that among any group of humans, a culture quickly develops. When that happens, there are relationship dynamics that create feelings of belonging, or power struggles, or protection, or any number of emotional connections with the other people with whom you’re working. At my own workplace we strive to create a positive, inclusive and progressive culture, and although we certainly have faults, everyone agrees that overall it’s a great place to work.

    One consequence of a “great place to work” is that you feel emotionally attached to your co-workers, in whatever way, and that means it’s SUPER hard to be impartial. It’s akin to a familial tie. Would you protect a close friend or loved one if they did something immoral or illegal?

    Still, I agree with you, and I think impartiality needs to trump those emotional connections in workplace. It’s tough but it needs to be done. Otherwise the organization basically becomes a mafia.

    1. Malachi: I think that’s an excellent question about the friend or loved one. While it’s easier said than done, my hope at this point in my life is that I would constructively call out my friends and family members if they’re doing something wrong. But those emotional connections are tough to overcome, and I agree that they form in the workplace too.

  6. As always, you remind me of why I love your company so much.

    I am not in a position to be able to respond to your questions. The world I come from had serious consequences for those at the lower end of the spectrum, and a vastly different set of rules and standards applied at the upper echelon (I was in the United States Navy for 10 years). I saw what happens when you bring the hammer down too hard on someone just because they are low-ranked, and what happens when you let things slide too much just because someone is high-ranked. It sucks. It breaks down morale and can cause a command to disintegrate from the inside.

    Corporate America is much the same, in my experience. I have worked for several companies (some small, some very large). And in each case, things that would get a floor-level employee fired are overlooked in the upper management and executive ranks. And when word gets out, things start to unravel quickly.

    If we had some way of truly being impartial as human beings, or even if we truly aspired to that (as you appear to be doing), I agree: the world would be a much better place. It would not be perfect, but at least we would be trying to get that one puzzle piece in correctly.

    1. Thanks David! I appreciate your perspective about the Navy, and you make a great point that it’s often the case that organizations view some people as disposable and others as indispensable (instead of viewing everyone as humans).

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