Solution Saturday: Are We Over-Concerned About Fairness
There is a manager in our company who is very “fairness” oriented. In other words, a primary focus of this manager is that everything be “fair” with employee interactions and day-to-day work.
This is not related to company policies and procedures. It has to do with how we work together. This seems like a subjective and dangerous approach to me in a workplace environment.
I believe we should focus on achieving excellence instead of making sure everything is “fair”. To me, fairness is very subjective (and is skewed in a lot of cases to our benefit when we are the ones deciding what the standard of fair is).
The focus becomes keeping tabs on others to make sure they aren’t doing any less than we are, and if they are, we aren’t happy. It takes away our responsibility to do what is right, because it is right, and causes employee performance to be relative to what others are doing instead of what can be achieved.
What are your thoughts on fairness? I’m perfectly fine to be wrong on this–I see issues on the horizon if our company begins focusing so strongly on fairness.
Dear ‘Fine to Be Wrong’,
Thanks for this question.
It’s not fair to treat everyone the same because everyone isn’t the same.
#1. Unfairness is necessary. Giving second chances, for example, isn’t fair to those who perform on schedule and within expectation. But, not giving second chances is cruel.
#2. Fairness is merciless. Mercy is not getting what you deserve. In other words, mercy isn’t fair.
#3. Equal opportunity must include reward or lack of reward. Those who seize opportunities earn reward. Those who don’t seize opportunities don’t earn reward. It’s important to note that it’s not necessary to punish those who don’t seize opportunity.
Rewarding teams always includes some unfairness.
#4. Fairness – treating everyone the same – de-motivates high achievers and rewards low performers.
#5. Fairness, when it means everyone is treated the same, promotes inaction. If you can’t be do something for everyone then you can’t do it for anyone. The result is you don’t do much.
Concern for fairness:
One issue is our concern over treating people unfairly because of race, for example.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It’s fair to judge people by their character. It’s unfair to judge them by the color of their skin.
Equal pay for equal work is another area where fairness is applicable. The alternative is also applicable, unequal pay for unequal work.
In addition, we bristle when leaders play favorites. It’s unfair, but favoritism happens. That doesn’t make it right. Concern that we are treated fairly is legitimate. However, success requires us to press through unfairness when we encounter it.
Just for fun:
Fairness plays a big role in the Rockwell Christmas. We are obsessessed, especially when our children were young, over spending the same amount on each child. The number of gifts might be different, but the amount we spent on each child was the same, almost to the penny. We never wanted our children to feel any sense of favoritism.
By the way, Santa brings gifts for bad girls and boys. Thank goodness he isn’t fair!
When is treating everyone the same appropriate?
What concerns do you see about treating everyone the same?
*Note: I suspend my 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.
“When is treating everyone the same appropriate?”
When their job performance and behavior is the same,
“What concerns do you see about treating everyone the same?”
It is an ineffective manager’s excuse not to do his job well.
Thanks Bob. Yes! It’s easier to treat everyone the same. Great add!
Controversial issue, this.
I would like to see more of a differentiation between treatment (culture-based) rewards and recognition (performance-based) and opportunity (based on skill, experience and previous success.)
I’ve seen leaders and other basically ignore “under-acheivers” when they were never given access to the same level of initial treatment or information or orientation or opportunity. Ever.
I am not an advocate of blanket fairness. I do believe that there are considerations for everyone and that not focusing on the high achievers alone expands an organization’s chances of growth.
Thanks Stephanie. I really enjoyed where you took this. To add to the spirit of your comment, some of the best opportunities for development are middle performers. Neglecting them really holds growth back.
If you consider the good old performance curve, with Numbers of people on the left and performance from high to low on the bottom scales, you will see some high performers and some low performers but MOST of the people will be near the middle of the curve, the average. IF you improve the performance of those in the middle, it tends to shift the entire curve toward higher performance (yes, and it even improves the performance of those low performers, who are motivated to not be “too far from the middle.”
This begs the question, “what can we do to improve average performer performance?” Is it sharing more best practices? Is it improving how the systems and processes operate to make getting better results easier? Is it dealing with the low performers (this is often a big DE-motivator to the average ones when poor performance is tolerated or ignored, pulling them toward the lower part of the scale and addressing the low ones moves things higher)? Is it simply doing training or building teamwork?
In my experience, one gets at the answer by asking the employees, and listening to the answers. It is not like they do not know what is going on… And there are many ways to address those issues.
It’s not fair is the common thread at work. Thank goodness for collective agreement when it comes to fairness at work, it isn’t subjective. Yet people forget that life is unfair and remind them to be compassionate instead. Thank you, Dan. And yes, fair value on all for Christmas tops $20!
Thanks Pilgrim. I really enjoy your juxtoposition of compassion with fairness. It brings a positive approach to an important conversation and gives me language to think/talk with.
The “cream rises to the top” comes to mind, not always fair for sure when we are all treated as equal, as Dan points out, we are not all equal when it comes to working!
So where do we draw the line in the sand?
Rewards for doing a ” good job” exist in some places, is that a solution? Depends on who is seeing the total picture. The work place has it standards and expectations which need to be clarified to keep everyone on the same page.
Hey Tim. Great seeing you here today. The addition of clear standards and expectations seems important when considering fairness. Fairness requires clear standards. Interesting.
” Fairness for all” is a tough push! Life and work at times are not fair whether we like it or not. Unions have their ideas on fairness and equality and so do workers.
How do we become one in unity?
Workers depending on their tasks are all different in their capabilities and achievements, so to lump them into one is a true challenge. The military has their standards as their basis for developing our military, can the workplace learn from the rules and regulations to create an “all for one” workplace atmosphere?
Possibly yes, but we are not all equal when it comes to performance.
The idea of how the military establishes sameness with rank is intriguing. Even within the sameness there is difference. Fascinating.
Dan et al, I worked very closely with a manager who used to bring “fairness” in multiple discussions about a few employees and herself. I took time to explain to her what I mean by “fairness” and what she thinks about the word. Turned out, we defined fairness differently and that caused most of our confusion. Very confusing word “fairness” it…
Thanks Niraj. It’s pretty difficult to have communication when we are talking about two different things. 🙂
It is fair to treat people fairly. It isn’t fair to treat people the same.
Thanks Alf. Nothing like a wee crafted sentence.
Intriguing post; proves that everyone sees the wording and language differently.
I’ve always said that everyone shouldn’t be treated equally but fairly. Obviously everyone isn’t equal and using the same standards across the board might not be fair to some. For instance, hiring front line people & expecting them to be able to work the computer within a couple of hours when they’ve never used one (even in today’s world that’s the case for a lot of people) isn’t fair even if there are some others who pick it up immediately.
Of course one can go too far in the other direction, where it looks like everyone doesn’t get a fair shake; that’s when it takes a bit of talent and a fully agreed upon procedure and process (hopefully written down) that helps balance things out (for instance, if the person I talked about can’t learn the computer in 2 months, it’s time to look in a different direction).
Thanks Mitch. Love the way you put it. It gets the idea across. Personally, I see the need to clarify definitions, but it can get tedious.
It’s been great reading your comment and the others. It helps bring clarity to a confusing and sometimes sensitive issue. Best wishes
Fairness = Equity of concern and respect
Thanks Kim. It’s all about definitions when we deal with sensitive issues.
Maybe the focus should be on treating people equitably versus fairly?
Thanks Mitchel. So I went to Dictionary.com and the definition of equitable is fair. 🙂
Posting up my reply and then sending a note to Dan directly (great post for considered consideration, BTW), I reread a blog I did two years ago, one about herding cows with sweet feed, that I thought addressed the performance side of this issue and that readers might find interesting. It is NOT about confronting poor performance (motivating to good performers, everywhere) but about moving the curve:
We CAN move the curve forward and we can do a better job of involving and engaging (nearly) everyone for workplace improvement, which itself generates #morebetterfaster kinds of impacts.
For the FUN of It!