Fair is fair ... or is it? A recent survey of small businesses suggests that, while most business owners agree on the importance of treating customers fairly, there's no clear consensus on whether businesses need to treat each other fairly, too.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, challenges the assumption that all business owners are on the same page about the importance of a square deal. Researchers found that businesses that regularly partner with other businesses — like merchant service providers or business suppliers — don't necessarily agree on the role fairness plays in these interactions.
"It is presumed that fairness, however it is defined by individual businesses, is important to all businesses," said Lisa Scheer, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri's Trulaske College of Business, in a statement. "Our research challenges that presumption and reveals that the importance placed on fairness can vary greatly among retailers." [14 Great B2B Business Ideas for 2014]
Scheer and her team surveyed small retailers in 10 culturally diverse countries, including the United States, to determine the businesses' views on fairness in their relationships with suppliers. While the researchers found that most small business owners have fairness on their radar, the degree of importance they place on fairness tends to vary across cultures and situations. [See also: Work Isn't Fair ... Especially for Women]
"In some cases, one business partner may be less interested in being treated fairly and more concerned about receiving adequate cash flow or profit for the business to survive," said Scheer. "Investing time and effort to 'be fair' in those situations is wasted and even counterproductive if it undermines the factors that are more important to the other business partner."
Not knowing when fairness does and doesn't matter can cause some tension in inter-business relationships, Scheer said. But luckily, she sees an easy solution to this problem: communication.
"If business partners discuss their values, and probe to determine what is most important for each party, contracts and interactions can be designed to better match each participant's needs, thereby building more-effective business relationships," Scheer said.
Such candid discussions are particularly important for businesses that work with partners in other countries, the researchers found, as different cultures tend to have different ideas about what fairness actually is.
"It is particularly shortsighted to extrapolate one's own perspectives about fairness when doing business with partners in other cultures and in countries at different stages of development," said Scheer.
Businesses can broaden their perspectives about fairness in part by employing people with a greater exposure to outside cultures. The study found that managers who have been exposed to cultures outside of their home countries are more comfortable with uncertainty and, therefore, less concerned with how well others' perception of fairness measures up to their own.
This comfort with ambiguity means that these managers spend less time worrying that everything's fair and square, and more time focusing on what really matters— running a business.