Box of Justice by Will Ringland

My primary view of justice this week was through my lens as a manager. I’ve been a manager at work for nearly 9 years now and only now are some pieces starting to click.

When people talk about compensation - salary, heath insurance, time off - they use the word “fair” an awful lot. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean. What they mean is “equal.” They want equal pay (1). If I’ve been working at a company in a role the same as someone else, I should be paid the same. After all, we’re doing the same thing.

No; no you shouldn’t, not necessarily.

Every person comes to a job with different backgrounds, different skills, and different interests. These two people will apply themselves in different ways, make different gains, contribute to their job function, their division, and the company in different ways. One person may be extraordinary in one facet of a job where another is well above average in sever key responsibilities.

These two people will not accomplish the same things even if their core job responsibilities are the same.

In my division, we expect people to meet core testing capabilities. You have to be able to dig in and understand features we add to the software, to write a coherent test plan that others could understand, expand testing beyond the “correct” workflows to find adverse effects outside of the features immediate workspace, and you must be able to own that feature of the software and make it better.

No person can maintain a job in our division if they cannot do these things. This is bread and butter for Quality Assurance.

Now, there are other things that we can and should do in our jobs. Often, we add large features that affect multiple areas in the software. There are two approaches to testing the overlap (2):

  1. Email test plans or maps around to other application testers and have them test overlap independently.
  2. Get a room, plan a co-testing afternoon to hammer on the feature with everyone in the room.

1 here is a base expectation. Informing other testers is key. An excellent tester, though, will coordinate that integrated room and get everyone on the same page. It is efficient even though the organizer loses more time up front. But it has traditionally led to better outcomes for that integration point.

Ability to coordinate is not a base expectation for the role. And if t takes away from core testing time, why is it a good thing? If Tester A takes 3 hours to coordinate an integrated testing session and Tester B uses that same 3 hours to completely finish testing the integrated area herself, who is the better tester? Who should be compensated more?

If you look solely at the base role expectations, A wasted that three hours. B contributed more to their job overall. My job, as a manager, is to understand how those differing contributions matter, and guide my people to places where they can do what they do best more of the time. It is, then, my job to take my understanding of what they do best and translate that back to my bosses and show how it matters and why it matters differently.

When you understand the broader impact of a person outside of what they “should do every day” it’s much easier to qualify a person’s contributions. B may be a good tester on their own and finds dozens of bugs, but if A got all the experts in the room and found some crazy complicated code bugs, these differing outcomes indicate different qualities of contribution. You cannot say that, just because these two people put the same time into a thing they should be compensated the same.

Outcomes matter. Depth matters. Method matters. Skills and efforts outside the primary role matter.

That is justice in the workplace. If I am not categorizing, understanding, and encouraging the best features in my team, I am wasting everyone’s time and money. Similarly, if I am forcing a person into the QA box and looking only at the core QA needs, that is a potentially more destructive waste of time and effort.

That is unjust. Core job requirements matter. But good people leave if that’s the only measure you’re using.

Justice by Will Ringland

In the previous weeks, I have routinely asked myself the coming virtues were to better gauge my adherence to them leading to their specific weeks. I admit that the latter half of Franklin’s virtues are tricky to keep in mind for two reasons.

  1. The first half of them provide noise to remember the remaining.
  2. The definitions for the second half of the virtues were not as obvious or concrete for me.

Aristotle describes justice in a hierarchical fashion: general (or external) justice above all, special (internal) justice below and which is subdivided further into distributive justice (equity) and rectification justice (equality). General justice concerns the overall welfare, or well-being of people or persons as a whole while special justice of the concerns particular virtuous acts between people.

It’s a little confusing.

Moreover, I feel like I am a just individual, it is a particular trait that we discuss amongst managers at work regularly, though indirectly (1). But I don’t really have a consistent concept for it. It’s only fairly recently that I feel as if I’ve gotten a better grasp of it in light of numerous discussions online and with friends regarding race relations in America after Ferguson and GamerGate.

This image summarizes it well:


When one has more and that more detracts from another having any; that is injustice. Franklin was more concerned with this sort of equity than justice, I think. He desired to do no wrong to people nor deny them their due. In the practice of justice, one must understand the differences between people in each situation and do what is fair for it.

Equal is not always fair. The easiest example I have is work - my team has people tenured between 6 months and 17 years. It is not fair to assign work equally between them for a deadline. My longer-tenured people are faster, more efficient, and more knowledgable. They can get more done in a day compared to the less tenured people and, if the goal is to test everything properly before the deadline while keeping levels of effort consistent for all, assigning work numerically equally makes little sense. It would drive up the less tenured members time up, increase their stress much more, than the tenured folks and that would be unjust.

So, in light of that, being just requires a greater situational awareness. Justice doesn’t need to exist without other people. If one lives alone on an island, there’s little sense in divvying up resources as if others were depending on it (2).

  1. Understand that equality is not necessarily justice.
  2. Recognize the abilities and contributions of people to a given situation.
  3. Act justly according to circumstance and try to help others understand.

This rules are a little vague but it’s hard to pin down a system for acting justly when justice depends heavily on the situation. At work, this is certainly something top of mind, especially as we head into a deadline, but I think the difficulty for me is applying this outside of work when I it harder to have all the details.

    1. Most regularly, we discus justice as recognizing the contributions of our teams. When a person does something good, you must give them credit for it or be failing in your duties as a manager. The other side of that coin is recognizing poor performance and addressing it in a similar manner. It is unjust to recognize only the one or neither or recognize them inconsistently.

    2. Unless you want to argue either that you should plan as if others may appear or also be stranded. Or divvying up resources in some capacity would extend their utility for you. The former is an artificial construct that requires other people before justice/injustice exists and the latter isn’t about justice as much as rationing for survival. It wouldn’t be unjust to eat all the food quickly, just stupid.