The Challenge of Being ‘Fair’

Jun 07, 2017

As a leader, what does it mean to be ‘FAIR’? You have a team of very different people, with different needs and different abilities, and, well, how can you be ‘FAIR’ to all of them?

This is a very important question within every workplace.

Employees care deeply about fairness. When they perceive they are being treated unfairly, they get angry. When they see others treated unfairly, they can get angry—yes. But they also get fearful, wondering when it will be their turn. It builds distrust between the team and the supervisor

Your team is constantly evaluating your fairness as a leader—don’t ever think they are not. And, they are evaluating how your:

  • Fairness in recognition—does everyone have an equal opportunity to be seen as successful and recognized as such by you and also by the larger organization? Or, do you push some people out in front all the time while never giving other the visibility they desire? While each team member plays a different role, if they shine in their role—whatever it is—do you recognize that success? Even the janitor or lowly assistant to the assistant needs visible recognition.
  • Fairness in opportunity—are some team members frequently offered the plum projects while others get trapped in the same old routine job? To employees, this does not seem fair. How are they supposed to shine when they are pushed back into the shadow all the time? On the other hand, your team members have differing levels of ability to handle those plum opportunities. How to be fair then? You will need to coach your more reticent players in how to best handle the visible, plum projects, helping them grow and shine.
  • Fairness in friendliness—do you spend more time with some members of your team? Are you friends with any of them? Do you chit chat with some more than others? While it is important for each person to know that you care about them—you care about them as people AND team members—it undermines the entire team when it is perceived that you care about certain people more than others. I know—some people are just nicer or easier to get along with than others. And, some people don’t want as much interaction as others. Yes, that is true. However, you are not at work to make friends. You are working to bring the entire team along to accomplish the organization’s goals.
  • Fairness in evaluation—I am not a huge fan of formal evaluation processes tied to incremental raises. In my experience, they kill morale for everyone except those identified as the ‘top performers’ who get the biggest raises. And, when only a few people are ‘allowed’ to receive the highest raises it pits employees against each other. Find a way to provide frequent coaching and feedback to every team member, regardless of their role. Recognize that everyone can shine in their own role—watch for it, expect it, coach for it, celebrate it—and it WILL happen. Work to evaluate people against their own goals and performance in their role, rather than comparing team members against each other.
  • Fairness in pay—this is the tough one!! Employees set up all kinds of different measures about how pay should be allocated. Some base it on their degrees and experience. Some think certain roles should get paid more than others—perhaps they have more visibility or are more complicated. Large organizations classify positions and assign certain pay ranges to that classification. Who knows?? And there is no right or wrong way to do this.  How you go about this will depend on how your team is constituted. A team of engineers should probably have a different methodology than a Starbucks. They key here is to be clear and transparent when you talk about the pay scale and how it is determined, and to apply the scale fairly, without discrimination.

If people are signaling to you that they don’t feel like you are fair you need to listen. That means you have some real communicating to do regardless of whether they are correct or not. Do not ignore this—there is too much to lose.