What is “Fair”?

I recently had a writing prompt that sparked some thought, as any good writing prompt does. It asked “under what circumstances is it fair for a company to institute layoffs?”

I’ve been hit by layoffs. I’ve had friends hit by layoffs. They’re the relentless specter of the games industry, and everyone has heard innumerable nightmare layoff stories and has probably experienced a few of their own. I know I have some, and I’ve only seen a few. It doesn’t take a lot to make a layoff feel like a nightmare.

The prompt asked about “fairness”. I don’t even know what “fairness” is in that sort of case. What is “fair”, when someone is losing their job? What is “fair” when an executive has to choose between decisions that they know will cause people to hate them? What is “fair” when that selection of poor choices isn’t even the fault of the person making them? What is “fair” for people who suddenly have to worry about their next paycheck?

I don’t think it’s possible to be “fair” to all of those groups of people. I’ve spoken before about the gap I see between workers in a company’s trenches and executive management– as more than one friend of mine calls them: the “suits”. For many people I know, “suits” are heartless, care only about money, don’t care about people, and are only looking so save their own skins or squeeze as much out as possible heedless of the toll it takes. They aren’t people who go home and live with the knowledge that they hold people’s very livelihoods in their hands, that their entire lives are a selection of decisions that they will be hated for, regardless of their reasoning. It’s easy, one imagines, to “live with” all of that when there’s a big paycheck coming.

I talk to a lot of people in executive management lately. They all have nightmare layoff stories too, but they’re different kinds of stories. They aren’t jump-scares, the sudden reveal of a terrible outcome– they’re creeping horrors, the slow realization that something awful is going to happen and there’s no good way to stop it. Every executive manager I speak to wants the same superpower: to see the future.

It makes me think of MMO class balance debates– the raging of players against “uncaring, incompetent” devs who don’t understand how the changes they are or aren’t making are terrible and “unfair”. Devs work crunch hours– should they get rewarded for the toll this takes on them or punished for allowing a situation to arise that necessitates crunch? Whose fault is crunch? Is there fault? Is exacting justice on the person or people at fault “fair”?

This is the kind of thing dominating my thoughts lately. How can I build a bridge between “suits” and the people on the front lines? There are decades of mistrust built up and those walls aren’t easy to break down. More than anything, finding ways to bridge that gap has been my motivation for leaving games to go into management.

As for what is “fair”, after I figure out how to answer the question of what that word even means, I find myself staring at a second question: “fair to whom?”

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