A Reputation as a Fair Manager

Have you ever reflect on how fair you are? At some point in your career, you likely encountered a manager you believed was unfair. You probably thought to yourself, “When I’m a manager, I’m never going to be like that!” Now that you’ve been promoted to a management position, you’re probably dedicating significant amounts of time and energy to making unbiased decisions, but no doubt finding that the right balance is elusive.


Sadly, there is no objective measure of fairness. Instead, each time you attempt to level the playing field on one dimension, you throw it off balance on another. The best, if imperfect, approach is to understand the different forms of fairness and to be thoughtful about when and how you apply them.


You can start with the most standard measure of fairness, which focuses on the outcomes of your decisions. Did your decision-making process lead to a fair distribution (of inputs and outputs) for everyone involved? You can apply this test to common managerial decisions such as how you allocate workload, offer development opportunities, and dole out rewards and recognition. You can be sure that your team is scrutinizing the outcomes of these high-profile decisions. If one person is disadvantaged by your decision making (e.g., assigned a less desirable shift or given a more difficult assignment) multiple times, it’s likely that they will perceive your decision-making as unfair. If that was all you had to worry about, life would be relatively simple.


Unfortunately, there’s more to it. In addition to the fairness of the outcome, your team will be judging the fairness of your process. […] The takeaway is that you need to be mindful about both your decision-making process and the resulting outcomes. You might need to compromise on one form of fairness to avoid damaging the other. One interesting side note: research has suggested that the relative importance of the fairness of the outcome versus the fairness of the process depends on which an employee hears about first. The research looked at a hypothetical hiring process in which some applicants were evaluated with a fair process and some with an unfair process (the difference was whether the evaluators scored all nine parts of the assessment protocol or only one of the nine). Some of the participants were told about the process that was used to make the selection decision before hearing whether or not they got the job, whereas others were told about the process after. […]


There are two competing definitions of fairness — equality versus equity. In an egalitarian form of fairness, propriety is tied to how equal things are, whether that’s having the same process or the same outcome for everyone. Vacation policies where everyone gets the same number of days off would be one example. In contrast, an equitable definition of fairness allows for either the process or the outcome to vary based on some legitimate and equitable difference among people. In the vacation example, you might give more days of vacation for employees who have a longer tenure with the company. You end up with four different versions of fairness using either an equal or equitable definition applied to either the process or the outcome.


[…] As a manager, you’ll learn this much sooner than others. You’ll face difficult decisions where no resolution seems ideal and where the outcome will be perceived as fair by some and unfair by others. Don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you have thought carefully about what the business needs and made your assessment of the best answer as objectively as possible, you have done your job. The next decision is already waiting for you.

This text is taken partially from Harvard Business Review., author Liane Davey. She is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. Her article was published August 3rd, 2018 in HBR.

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Rike Bucher 
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