Are We Over-Concerned about Fairness?

Read this article, which argues that fairness alone is not a sufficient guiding principle for an exemplary leader. Why does the author believe that using fairness alone is too subjective? Do you agree that Plato's Four Cardinal Virtues should always guide our actions in some measure?

Dear Dan,

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 are not doing any less than we are, and if they are, we are not 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 am perfectly fine to be wrong on this – I see issues on the horizon if our company begins focusing so strongly on fairness.

Fairness treating everyone the same demotivates high-achievers and rewards low-performers

Dear Fine to Be Wrong,

Thanks for this question.

It is not fair to treat everyone the same because everyone is not the same. 


Bigger Issues

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 do not seize opportunities do not earn reward. It is 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 is fair to judge people by their character. It is 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 is unfair, but favoritism happens. That does not 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 obsessed, 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 is not fair!

Source: Dan Rockwell,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2021, 3:21 PM