Life is Not Fair

Just spent two weeks in the Middle East helping a Giga company to enhance the partnership between senior line managers and their HR departments. What I observed through my interactions with these senior managers was their fascination with fairness. Nothing got them in more of an uproar than an HR policy committing an act of perceived unfairness. I have noticed that in the Middle East, fairness is a topic that gets hearts beating significantly faster than in many other parts of the world.

When I talked to them about what they mean with “that is not being fair” I always got very contradicting answers. It is clear that the concept of what is fair, means a lot of different things to different people. However, digging deeper I noticed three different threads emerging; fairness on procedures, fairness in how you distribute resources and fairness in relations.

A process is perceived fair if it does what it says it intends to, is not used for any other purposes that its intended purpose, is documented, has been developed taking input from stakeholders, has room for people to complain (and deal with complaints), is clear and understood by all, is applied throughout the organization and in which line managers and employees have been trained on how to use the process effectively.

However, a fair process doesn’t always guarantee a perceived fair outcome. How many times have you heard from your employees that it is not fair that his/her colleague is getting ‘outstanding’ ratings whereas he/she is only getting a ‘good’ rating? Or where your colleague compares their career progression with that of their university batch and claims it is not fair that “he is now the CEO and I am only a departmental manager?”

I will dedicate a future blog on the concept of distributive fairness, as there are many different options. Depending on your point of view, you would think that people are treated fairly if:

  • Their receives are in proportion to their contribution (equity) or
  • They receive the same as others (equality) or
  • They get what they need (necessity)
  • They should get more than someone else because he / she is a… (origin).

The most tense conversations are with those people who believe that something should be distributed on the basis of different principles. Try to get a communist and a capitalist in the same room and share a bonus pool among their staff! (But as mentioned, more on this in a future…)

Having an employee who thinks a process is fair and who agrees with the outcome of his/her performance assessment still has one fairness hurdle to go, dependent on the way you interact with the individual. Whether you treat him/her with respect, dignity and politeness and whether you have been transparent in sharing all the required information.

So all in all, ensuring employees are treated fairly is far more complicated and treacherous than appears on the surface. This is probably the reason that line managers just give up on trying to treat people fairly and try to wiggle out of it by proclaiming that ‘Life is Not Fair’.

– Paul Keijzer


8 thoughts on “Life is Not Fair

  1. Agreed. Can’t wait to read your future blog on “Distributive Fairness”, Fairness is still among the grey areas whose exact definitions are not yet agreed upon. Everyone has their own perceived fairness

  2. Paul Life can be fair, this world is not fair, thats why we have choice ending up with haven or hell. Enjoy and keep making rite choices

  3. Perception is always subjective so my perceived fairness might not be “fair” for others. For most of us a system is fair as long as it is beneficial of “us”.

  4. Paul Hi,
    I am a great believer that HR can be an influancer of his management team and through that improve leadership. If you need to rate 1-5 how strong the relationship between HR and their business leaders. would you say 1 (poorly) or 5 (highly) or in between.

  5. Important observation, specially true for middle east. There is an additional dimension of multicultural, multi-ethnic work force /leadership, which reinforces this perception of favoritism and clans. Bigger role to be played by the local leadership to demonstrate fairness.

    • thanks for sharing your experience Shahab. My experience in the middle east is that people find fairness very important but only a the part ‘why am i not getting what he gets’, without understanding how others (outside the middle east) are not entitled to anything they have

      • True. Over here, world starts and ends at middle east. All benchmarks and comparison are so local. If you’ve not worked in ME, US or at the max UK, you’re not born yet.
        I think your point of treating people with dignity and politeness and bring transparency to your processes holds the key. Not many organizations can be proud of their culture in this regard.

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