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Sameness versus Fairness

“Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised,” Brit Hume

I have spent a good portion of my career working in a field that is predominantly male once I stepped into the management arena. I have been the only woman on the leadership team more times than I can remember. I have fought for equality and still feel passionately that EVERYONE should be treated fairly. I think we can all agree we want to be treated fairly; we don’t want to be harassed or made to suffer persistent discrimination. The goal of treating people fairly seems pretty obvious as a manager and we are bombarded with messaging about equality, but it often gets confused with the goal of treating everyone the same. However, sameness doesn’t put employees in the right place of honor that they deserve within a workplace.

You likely have seen a situation where two people have similar job titles and salaries, yet one consistently outperforms the other. This is exacerbated when the low performer gets paid more and/or has more status (for example, has a more senior job title or authority). What bothers the high performer and others close to the situation is that they get away with it. In fact, one of the fastest paths to low morale in a team and organization happens when fairness gives way to sameness. Failing to treat all of your employees fairly can result in lost productivity, disgruntled people, and a lack of trust from your employees. All of these things will likely result in a high turnover rate and tarnish your reputation as a leader.

Fairness means treating each employee appropriately, and individually, based on the quality of their contributions towards organizational goals and mission.

Fairness depends on something external, such as circumstances, situations, performances, or contribution and it requires the application of good judgment. Sameness is easy, fairness is harder, which is one of the many reasons why leadership isn’t easy. Leading with fairness calls for judgement and a degree of wisdom. While experience can help a leader develop these qualities, they certainly are not reserved only for the most senior of managers.

Your job, as a leader, is to inspire maximum effort from people at work. When managers abandon fairness in pursuit of sameness, something happens to people’s willingness to give their all, or to go the extra mile. It’s like a slow leak in a tire – eventually it becomes entirely deflated, or perhaps blows out altogether.

Fairness is deeply embedded in human nature. We know fairness when we see it; we feel it, and we know when it’s not there. When you model and lead with transparent fairness, you will be trusted as a leader. You will be respected and appreciated for your fairness, even from those who are not your high performers. After all, how will we grow and improve if we aren’t held accountable? I know I want to be held to a high standard and I want to work with others that feel the same way, all the while being treated fairly.

Is there any yardsticks to measure fairness within an organization? Yes, to a certain degree: Every organization has its own rules and guidelines that are put in place for employees to be fairly rewarded for what they deserve.  If followed judiciously, the guidelines state who is eligible for promotion, a pay raise, higher position, or title. It becomes chaotic and disorderly when managers or leaders who are expected to exercise a great deal of fairness usurps their authority and rewards unqualified employees.

Your ability, as a leader, to carry everyone along in your organization depends on your willingness to remain fair in all your dispositions. This is a professional skill every great leader possesses. The good news is that we are not born with it; it is something we can all learn, develop, and utilize for our professional achievements in managerial capacities.

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