The concept of fairness represents the least understood, most often used and abused concept in business
What goes through your mind when your boss says to you: “I just want to be fair in this situation.” If you’re like many employees, particularly amid the lower ranks, you’re wondering how the boss is going to screw you over and make it look like he just promoted you.
Fairness can be a powerful tool. It can be leveraged by an individual or organization to achieve remarkable levels of success. But, because it is such a potent tool for leadership and management, the idea of fairness is susceptible to rampant abuse.
Like a liquid, “fairness” seems to take the shape of its container. And how a person or organization internalizes “fairness” will justify the actions that they believe to be fair; regardless of how they may impact others. Worse, there is little that can be done to change another’s concept of “fairness,” especially when their view of what’s fair overflows with an abundance of what’s fair for themselves. Still, it is possible to observe and interrupt these actions, even when others attempt to disguise their intentions.
A person’s attitude and approach to “fairness” can be used as a type of “Rorschach test” enabling you to identify and understand the underlying perceptions, attitudes, philosophy and character of those you may work for or with whom you do business. If you recall, the Rorschach inkblot test is a series of 10 “ambiguous designs” presented to an individual who is then asked to offer an interpretation of what they see. This test is used by psychologists to help determine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning, especially when the individual is reluctant to openly state the intention of their actions.
Likewise, observing how an individual or institution interprets the sometimes ambiguous concept of “fairness” is a good way to anticipate and understand the underlying motivation that drives their actions. This is especially when they try to disguise the objective of these actions under the very concept of “fairness.” It is important to do this, because if your concept of fairness differs from what those you deal with may believe, you can find yourself vulnerable to unfair treatment.
The best way to illuminate the “fairness quotient” of an individual or organization is to understand that fairness does not equate to equal, but it does mean equitable. This is a distinction that causes many to fall short in any “fairness” test. They fear that fairness means dividing everything up “equally.” That is not the case. Fairness really means “doing the right thing for everyone, not doing the same for everyone.” You will have a better understanding of “fairness” if you think of it in terms of equity, not equality.
And here are some questions that highlight the difference between the two:
- It is not unfair for senior executives at a company to earn more than lower-level employees, but is it equitable for the CEO to make 100 times the average of all employees?
- It may be good incentive to provide restricted-stock grants to executives of a company, but is it equitable to make these available only to a limited few and not to others who also work to add value to an organization?
- In difficult times it may be necessary to reduce benefits and compensation to employees, but isn’t it fair to start with the highest paid, not the lowest? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t these sacrifices to be shared across the board?
- If it is considered “best practices” to offer performance bonuses to executives, isn’t it a shortfall in fairness, not to offer them to all employees? Fairness does not require that the bonuses be equal, but for fairness to prevail, all employees should have an equitable opportunity to earn a bonus. After all, if people have the ability to add value to an organization, isn’t it fair for them to have the opportunity to participate in the value they help create?
- The attitude of fairness is not limited to simply monetary compensation. It has just as much impact –for good and bad – when it comes to credit for work done, methods of advancement, assignment of responsibility and opportunity to have an influence in the outcome of the objectives sought by an organization.
There is nothing unethical – in the sense of illegal or immoral – for a company to be “unfair” – in the sense of being less than equitable – but such an approach is not a level of ethical behavior that should be cloaked with the cover of “fairness.” The point of these examples is that a lack of basic fairness or equity in any relationship will sap the strength of the relationship, resulting in more of a focus on the unfairness, than the opportunity for success. Fortunately, there is very much an upside to the fairness concept.
If, as a leader or executive, you have as a top priority the creation of an environment of “equitable fairness,” those who follow will be comfortable and motivated to make the effort to achieve success for you and the organization, because they know they will be treated fairly for their effort. In short, true fairness comes down to a concept of “parallel interests.” (Where have you heard that before?) Parallel interests means that one cannot benefit unless all do and all benefit when one does. It does not mean that everyone benefits equally, but everyone does benefit equitably. That is the essence of fairness and while Francis Edward Smedley’s (1818-1864) quotation about “All’s fair in love and war” doesn’t encapsulate that thought, here’s another of Smedley’s quotes that, perhaps, does:
Alone I dare not climb…
With you I reach new heights
Fairness is what keeps employees with you pushing your company to achieve new heights and which pushes the ethical leader to unparalleled success.
And the Moral of the Story …
The concept of “fairness” is a powerful tool in the exercise of leadership and management. Fairness is, in essence, a test for real leadership. How this tool is used can go a very long way in determining the success or failure of a leader or organization. Fairness is a two-edged sword: On one side is the opportunity to create trust and respect for a leader that manifests itself in the willingness and desire for all to work diligently to achieve the goals of the leader or organization. On the other side is the sharp edge of inequity – unfairness – that out of frustration for not being treated with fairness severs the motivation and desire of followers to make the extra effort for the leader.
Many leaders and organizations determine fairness based upon what is fair for themselves. They are like the chef who believes he knows best what to serve; when the reality is that the quality of the fare is best determined by those who eat it. Likewise, the quality of fairness is best determined by those who receive it and they act accordingly. So, as a leader the best way for you to be fair to yourself is to be fair to others first.