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What is Fair

Editor's Note: This post is a little longer than usual, but worth the time.

One of the 13 behaviors I teach managers is fairness. The statistics are clear that when workers feel they are treated fairly, their engagement (and all that comes with that) goes up.

Whenever I talk about fairness, I get the same series of questions (all relevant and good questions):

  1. Life isn’t fair!

  2. What is fair?

  3. Who decides what is fair?

Fair is a human concept. If I decide to wear a blue shirt today, the red shirt doesn’t scream “unfair”. Mostly because shirts don’t talk, but also because shirts don’t have emotions – shirts don’t see things as fair and unfair.

Because fair appears to be an emotional and human construct – it is inevitably flawed. It is like good and bad. An event is just an event – we place the good or bad label on it based on our viewpoint.

Managers can, and should, do certain things to reduce the fact that someone can consider something unfair. A manager can’t please everyone, but don’t let great be the enemy of good.

Life isn’t Fair

This is the easier to address. I agree that life isn’t fair, but “life” isn’t a person. In fact, life isn’t really a thing that anyone controls. A better and more defined question is “can people be fair?” Yes. Will they make mistakes in being fair? Yes.

I do believe that every person, specifically managers, makes a choice on if they want to be fair or not. They should because it is the right thing to do and because it has a direct impact on employee engagement.

What is Fair?

Oxford online dictionary defines fair as “impartial and just, without favoritism or discrimination”.

I’ll focus purely on the managerial side of this discussion. Managers must do 2 things to be fair:

  1. Have a consistent process for weighing all reasonably knowable facts.

  2. Come to the same conclusion every time the factors are equal.

While everyone might not agree with the decision, the process and final decision can be considered fair.

There are very few decisions in life where every variable is equal. In almost every decision, some variable will be different. That is where the manager must decide the variables that are most important and not showing favoritism or discriminatory.

Fairness requires:

  • Transparency: what variables were used in the decision and why did you choose them?

  • Consistency: when faced with similar situations, did you use similar variables?

  • Logic: did the variables used and the final decision make sense?

Who decides what is fair?

While it may not be the best answer, but whoever makes the decision is the one who ultimately decides if it is fair.

However, managers don’t work in a bubble and suffer from human fallibility. They work with a team and they work in an organization. Which is why managers should be open to hearing challenges to their decisions. I suggest they develop a “Fairness Council”. A group of trusted employees who can review decisions (or at least decisions that are deemed unfair) to ensure they meet the criteria of transparent, consistent, and logical. A manager shouldn’t be bound by something the council decides but should take all recommendations seriously. After all, both the manager and the council should want the same thing – the team to feel as if they are being treated fairly.

Example 1

You have a team that all works on site because they deal with client issues. Everyone is expected to be there from 8 to 5 every business day. Ahmed is someone who has worked with you for 5 years and has done excellent work. Emily has been with you for 2 months and is doing good work, but still has a lot to learn.

Ahmed comes to you one day and explains that his wife got a new job. It is a great opportunity for her, but it is a bit more of a commute. He was wondering if he could work 9 to 6 so he could take the kids to school and she could pick them up. He says that on days where a client really needs to meet with him before 9, he will be able to get backup with at least 24 hours notice (which is normally what clients give them).

You tell him that is no problem, and he starts to shift the schedule.

Emily sees this and comes to you and says she would like to work 9:30 to 6:30. She tells you that she is a night person and really likes to sleep a little later in the morning. Being able to do so would really help her be more productive. When you ask about clients that want to meet before 9:30, she responds that she will make sure to schedule them as soon as possible when she gets in.

You can make this decision on 3 variables:

  • Reason for the request (family situation vs personal preference)

  • Quality of work (both good, but one with a longer track record)

  • Client flexibility (one has a plan to change to accommodate the client while the other will require the client to accommodate the employee).

Using those 3 factors, it is reasonable to approve Ahmed’s request but deny Emily’s request.

Example 2

Malcolm and Maria are both Sr. Analysts on your team. They both started at approximately the same time and their salaries are slightly different mainly because Maria negotiated a slightly higher starting salary. But the difference is less than 1% between the two. It is time for annual raises and you have been told that your pool is a 3% increase. You can divide that increase up as you want, but it cannot exceed 3% of your salary expenses.

In this case, you decide to use 2 criteria:

  • Salary range (are they within the approved salary range for the position) – both are within the range.

  • Performance metrics – Maria has clearly had a better year when looking at the metrics.

Based on this, you decide to give Maria a 4% raise and Malcom a 2% raise. Before you give the team their raise amounts, you explain to them that the pool was 3% and also explain the criteria you used in making your decision. No one knows what others got (unless they willingly shared it themselves).

Maria is happy she got more than 3%. Malcolm is disappointed in 2%. He believes that since he has the same role and responsibilities as Maria, he should get the same as her in terms of raise. In fact, he says it is unfair and in anger tells you that he thinks you gave a better raise to Maria because she is a woman.

Let’s look at the requirements for fairness:

  • Transparent: Clearly explained the factors involved.

  • Consistent: Used the same criteria for both people and we can assume these criterion are used every year.

  • Logical: The two criteria make sense (while someone could argue there should be other criteria used, there should be little debate these criteria make sense).

I would clearly argue that this is fair.

Some might argue that it would be more equal if you just gave everyone 3%. Equal – yes. Fair – no. After all, one of the values you discuss is being rewarded for performance. To give everyone the same amount regardless of performance would go against that value.


Fairness requires transparency, consistency, and logic. It can only be achieved if the factors are determined and then the situation analyzed in relation to those factors. It cannot be fair if you decide what you want to do and then select factors to make your decision be accurate.

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Great article. A common scenario is Jane comes in and needs to change her schedule because her child’s school has changed their hours and there is no way around it. Jane is a great worker and there are no concerns that she would do well. Jane leaves the office and tells Joe she has changed her hours and now Joe comes and says his child also goes to that school and needs to change his hours. At what point did we create our own problem here? Everyone can’t go home. I had this exact issue with 7 employees from the same small town

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