Less Than a Duck

Some years ago, I had the rather dubious pleasure of watching an organization implode. Arguments, recriminations, people leaving, the works. What had happened? Well, it seems that salary information for a certain employee, let’s call him Fred, got out. Now Fred was a decent enough employee but, at least in the opinion of the rest of the department, he didn’t deserve to be paid significantly more than the rest of them. Unfortunately, he was being paid significantly more, for no clear reasons. There was Fred and then there was everyone else. The general feeling by everyone else was that Fred’s work simply didn’t deserve the greater pay despite his having the word “Senior” as part of his title.

This perception of unfairness caused no end of problems. Management’s response didn’t help. While they did make some attempt to deal with the facts of the situation, they failed to address the real problem: a great many employees no longer felt that the system was fair. That lack of fairness, in turn, undermined trust and things went down hill from there.

Now, the fact is, all organizations need to have metrics for determining raises, deciding whom to promote or punish, resolve conflicts, give awards, and on. Sometimes the methodology is crystal clear, sometimes not so much. Either approach can work, provided that the process appears to be fair. At IBM under Tom Watson Jr., while the guy with the PhD might get a higher starting salary than the guy without one, if they did the same quality of work then after a couple of years they’d be getting paid approximately the same amount. Whether or not this is literally true, certainly IBMers at the time believed it to be true. The process was perceived to be fair.

Fairness, of course, is itself a funny thing. What is fair? Well, most Americans consider a trial to be fair provided evidence is presented and the accused has the right to face her accusers. Justice that appears arbitrary or capricious will generally evoke reactions ranging from discomfort to outrage. Of course, sometimes an outcome that doesn’t match our perceptions of justice will also trigger such reactions, as in the OJ Simpson trial. Most often, though, we expect the process to be fair even if it occasionally fails to deliver the results we want: if the process by which raises are given is perceived to be fair, then we know that over time our pay will be commensurate with our work, even if we didn’t get a raise this particular time around.

In the classic comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is a scene early in the movie where a woman is accused of being a witch. Now, as everyone knows, you determine if someone is really a witch by throwing them in the water: if they drown, they’re innocent and if they float they’re guilty. Sir Bedevere then launches into a bit of brilliant logic in which he determines that since witches float and ducks float, if the woman weighs less than a duck, she must be a witch. When they put her on the scales with a duck, she does, indeed, weigh less than the duck (possibly due to an appropriately placed thumb). This may not be a particularly fair system of justice, but at least the Python version was funny.

Of course, Holy Grail is a movie. It’s not reality. Fortunately, we don’t have to look very hard to find a real life example of a process that many people perceive to be unfair: the recent USADA claim that Lance Armstrong doped and the recommendation that he be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

Now, before I go any further, I should make it clear that I’m not a competitive cyclist, I don’t know Lance Armstrong personally, and I have no inside knowledge of whether or not he doped. My concern here is with the process, not the outcome. My analysis is based purely on the information provided in the newspaper articles I’ve been reading about the case.

The system appears unfair exactly because it violates the maxims of how many people are conditioned to think about justice: for one, there is no physical evidence. Lance Armstrong has never failed a drug test. Although USADA claims to have physical evidence, they also won’t let anyone see it. Since they are a private organization, they aren’t bound by legal rules of evidence; however, the fact that they have the right to withhold the evidence doesn’t mean that the perception of such behavior is favorable.

It’s worth noting that the US government recently concluded a two year investigation into the doping allegations leveled against Armstrong and ended up dropping the case due to lack of evidence. This makes USADA’s claim seem even more baseless. Even the argument that Armstrong made so much money riding his bike that he could afford to fool the government is hard to swallow: professional baseball players make just a tiny bit more than professional cyclists and the government was able to find plenty of evidence in those cases.

One of the conversations that, sadly, happens all too frequently in many businesses goes something like this:

Manager: I hear you haven’t been a good team player.

Employee: What are you talking about? I’m constantly helping the team. Who said that?

Manager: That’s what people say.

Employee: Which people?

Manager: I can’t tell you.

Employee: What was the situation?

Manager: It’s not important. What matters is that they say you aren’t a good team player.

This is particularly frustrating for the employee who may have no clue what the claims are about and certainly cannot address the specific issues. In fact, in the situations I’ve dealt with, the most common reason for the complaint is a misunderstanding that could have been easily resolved if the two people had spoken. Less common, but hardly unheard of, is someone making a complaint in order to bring down a high flyer or to advance a personal agenda. At one Massachusetts company, employees figured out that if there was even a hint of disagreement with another employee, file a complaint with management. The first complainer always won.

Going back to the USADA example, one of the points I’ve seen mentioned over and over is that much of their case is based on hearsay evidence from riders whom USADA threatened to ban if they didn’t testify against Armstrong. Exactly who those riders are, however, is unclear since USADA won’t release the names. While they may have perfectly valid reasons for having secret witnesses, the behavior is one that is easily perceived to violate cultural norms of fairness.

In a situation such as a professional sport, the perception of fairness in administering drug claims may not be all that important. It’s not impossible to make a reasonable argument that what matters is getting the cheaters, just as some people might argue that a trial is unnecessary when we know someone is guilty. Of course, this begs the question of what happens when you make a mistake (as an aside, while I’ve met many people who seriously support the maxim of guilty when accused, those who have subsequently been the target of an accusation always seem to feel they should be the exception to that rule). In a business, mistakes of this nature can lead to expensive litigation or to difficulties retaining and hiring top people. When there is a perception that your career can be derailed by a disgruntled coworker passed over for promotion or by a petty bureaucrat whose highest accomplishment is destroying others to advance his own career, it’s hard to be loyal to that organization or to trust your coworkers. Lack of loyalty decreases performance and job satisfaction, which leads to reduced revenue for the business, higher turnover, and a more expensive recruiting process. The perception of organizational justice has far reaching implications for the success of the business.


Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” Steve’s latest book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers,” is due out from Springer in 2013. For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visit www.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

Comments (5)

CamSeptember 14th, 2012 at 8:46 am

Just came across this post. You must have been reading statements from Armstrong’s lawyers because there are a slew of problems here.

First off, Armstrong was charged with more than simply doping. He was also charged with possessing, trafficking, administering, encouraging others to use, and a cover-up. None of those serious charges would be determined by a drug test.

Here’s the charging letter:


USADA’s arbitration process dictates that the accused gets access to all the evidence after he/she decides to go to a hearing. You don’t give the accused the evidence prior to a plea. In the end, Armstrong refused a hearing.

USADA has direct eyewitness testimony from more than a dozen ex-teammates and team staff as well as a lab director. That is completely different than hearsay.

The U.S. government’s case was about misuse of federal funds for the intent to fund doping, not whether Armstrong actually doped. Doping is legal in America.

Some of the witnesses are known: Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, and George Hincapie, all of whom testified under oath during the federal investigation. There have been no reports of anyone threatened with a ban for not testifying. There have been unconfirmed reports that some of the witnesses may have confessed to their own past doping and received some sort of leniency in return for help in the investigation. That investigation included charging a team manager, three doctors and a trainer.

Armstrong had the opportunity to have a public hearing in front of members of the American Arbitration Association in which the evidence could’ve been challenged and the witnesses cross-examined.

SteveSeptember 17th, 2012 at 11:54 am

Thank you for illustrating a point I did not make sufficiently clear in my original article: it’s not whether the process is actually fair, it’s the appearance of fairness that matters.

One of the big problems I observe organizations creating for themselves is responding to criticisms of process or comments on how something seems wrong in ways that are perceived as dismissive of the concerns raised. For example, when you open your post with, ” You must have been reading statements from Armstrong’s lawyers…” you immediately dropped many notches on the credibility scale. Why? Because 1) you have absolutely no knowledge of what I have or have not read and asserting that you do is at best insulting, at worst idiotic; 2) in fact, I have never read anything by Armstrong’s lawyers unless it was quoted in one of the NY Times articles I read on the topic. This immediately makes your credibility suspect on, I will grant, a purely emotional level. Unfortunately, humans act based on emotion.

This goes back to my point about organizational behavior: once you’ve triggered an emotional reaction. insisting on the rightness of your position, as you do in your post, only triggers the opposite response from the one I am assuming you intended (to wit, I am assuming you wish me to look at the data you provided and agree that I am mistaken in my original piece… something that is unlikely to occur, at least not as a result of your post since you have provided me with no reason to believe you, trust you, or consider you credible). Once an organization creates that lack of credibility reaction, it is very difficult to reverse.

In this specific situation, my position is much like that of a typical person in a large organization observing events unfolding: there are a great many conflicting arguments, and determining the truth is likely to be impossible. Thus, the tendency is to fall back on cultural values of fairness and justice. In the United States, this is the belief that someone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That hasn’t happened in this case. As I observed, USADA is certainly not required to do that, but that doesn’t excuse them. If the action appears unfair, it will be treated as unfair. If someone is going to claim, as USADA is effectively claiming, that Lance Armstrong is the Professor Moriarity of cycling, then they need to take extraordinary steps to demonstrate that their process is fair or many many people will simply never believe them. A quick Google search turns up plenty of evidence that that is, in fact, exactly what is happening. USADA looks even worse given that UIC commented that as of 7 September they hadn’t received Armstrong’s dossier from USADA and that this was rather unusual given that USADA had just issued a ban on Armstrong. Sure, there are plenty of explanations for why USADA didn’t send the file immediately, as they are required to do: someone might have taken the file to the bathroom with him or left it on his desk while he went on vacation (yes, the sarcasm is intentional). The point is, it doesn’t look good.

You see, the problem is that credibility of a speaker is a big part of how we perceive the fairness of a system. Just as you lost credibility by not leaving a name or identifying information, and by engaging in “mind reading,” by making assumptions about what I did or did not read, USADA is losing credibility by how it has conducted this whole operation.

Again, in professional sports, there is a captive audience, so the perception of fairness is not necessarily important. In a business setting, perceptions of fairness demonstrably lead to higher levels of employee commitment, productivity, and job satisfaction. Perceptions of unfairness lead to just the opposite.

And this is my point: perception is often more important than reality in human behavior.

CamSeptember 17th, 2012 at 9:37 pm

It’s true I don’t know from where you got your info, but considering some of it is inaccurate I figured you read statements from LA’s lawyers. They have been confusing much of the public and press with falsehoods and red herrings. Perhaps I should’ve left my assumption out of the post. My intent wasn’t to insult you.

“Sure, there are plenty of explanations for why USADA didn’t send the file immediately, as they are required to do:”

Tygart said it would be weeks at a minimum before a file was ready. It was going to take months to prepare for a hearing had there been one.

From Velonation:

—USADA previously told VeloNation that the sheer volume of evidence gathered plus the need to exclude information sensitive to the pending arbitration processes of Johan Bruyneel, Pedro Celaya and Pepe Marti meant that it would take time before the reasoned decision would be communicated.—


I would be interested in what exactly USADA has done that hurts its credibility. I would suggest the UCI is the organization that has come out of this looking bad and will look worse if they were involved in a coverup.

SteveSeptember 19th, 2012 at 10:14 am

I appreciate the apology. I wasn’t offended, though, just trying to illustrate a point about credibility. In far too many settings, fairness and credibility are based on appearance not on content. This is, as I mentioned, a serious problem in organizational settings where management frequently makes things worse by saying, “You must have done…” or “You must do this…” and so on.

In my very informal observations of the controversy around Armstrong, it’s clear that there are a great many people who will not believe his guilt no matter what. This is a well-known phenomenon in psychology and nothing terribly shocking. And sure, maybe Armstrong’s lawyers have been misleading people as you claim. But I suspect that if someone pro-Armstrong jumped into this discussion, they would make the same argument about USADA and it quickly devolves into a he said, she said argument. This is why we have courts; this isn’t the sort of thing that can be decided in the court of public opinion.

To take the dossier point as an example, it doesn’t matter that Tygart stated that it would take weeks for them to assemble to dossier. Banning Armstrong for life when you don’t have your paperwork lined up resembles banks foreclosing on people’s houses without having the paperwork in place. It looks bad. It creates an image of someone going off half-cocked. If a large organization fired a top employee “for cause,” and didn’t have the paperwork and documentation in place, it would be a public relations nightmare, lawsuit, the works. USADA would have been much better served by slowing down and giving the appearance of due deliberation rather than what appears to the casual observer as being in a rush for no reason. It makes their actions look like a vendetta.

As for UIC, I suspect that their reputation will be unaffected no matter which way they decide. You can decide whether that’s good or bad 🙂

CamSeptember 19th, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Putting the definitive and likely last official case against Armstrong out is more about getting it right than having it done fast. Even if the UCI were to appeal it isn’t like Armstrong will ever ride professionally again. Rather than being in a rush, I think it speaks to being methodical. The case on paper isn’t the same as the case argued in a hearing which is what USADA originally had to concentrate on. Now they have to take what would’ve been live testimony and put it on file, plus weed out sensitive info from the other defendants’ cases.

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