Merge's Blog

So what is fairness anyway?

fairness - equivalent, not equalHow employees perceive fairness in the workplace is very important (as this funny video about an experiment with capuchin monkeys demonstrates), but in my conversations with leaders, I make it a point to separate equality from equivalency.  This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but let me explain.

Fairness cannot be equal

Fairness should not (and cannot) be equal, it must be equivalent.  In other words, good leaders don’t treat all their employees exactly the same, rather they adapt their approaches to be more effective for different employees. Sure, that can translate into differences in how policies are interpreted and how rules are enforced, which may cause complaining, particularly from those employees who may feel like they are getting the raw end of the bargain.

Focus on doing the right thing … for the company AND the employee

Chances are that the employee who complains is likely the one who would complain about unfairness no matter what action or approach you took.  So if this employee is going to complain anyway, you might as well do the right thing as a leader, and be flexible in the application of rules.  If you have an employee that needs to stagger working hours to meet personal commitments, seek to find a way to make it happen.  Of course you still need to ensure that business requirements are met, but don’t sweat too much about the one or two people who will inevitably complain about how “It’s not fair that John gets to come in 1 hour late twice a week”.

I have always said that there is no such thing as equal treatment when it comes to people leadership; it’s simply not possible.  The truth is that no matter how hard you try to treat people fairly, there will always be someone who will cry foul. So why not seek to treat people equivalently rather than equally? Equally means “exactly the same” and by the way, it’s usually the objective of just about every written company policy. But equivalently means treating people as individuals and trying to find a solution that is optimal for both the employee as well as the employer.  Guaranteed, there will be instances when the best win-win scenario will not match what the rule book dictates. But do it anyway.

So, do you agree with me on my definition of fairness?  What are some of the challenges you face when trying to treat employees fairly (equally or equivalently)?  Please share by commenting below.


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