At some point in your career, you likely
encountered a boss you believed was unfair. You probably thought to yourself, “When
I’m a boss, I’m never going to be like that!” 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.
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 for everyone involved? You
can apply this test to common 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.
Unfortunately, there’s more to it. In addition to
the fairness of the outcome, your team will be judging the fairness of your process.
Was your decision-making process inherently fair, regardless of the outcome? How you arrive at your decision will carry
as much weight in how you are perceived as the decision you ultimately end up
The challenge is that when you try to optimize one
version of fairness, you can inadvertently taint the other. As a simple
example, imagine assigning workload based on a flip of a coin. Because a
coin-flip is random, it can be considered a fair process. Now imagine
that you flip the coin ten times and seven of those times it comes up heads.
Now the person who chose heads gets 70% of the workload — an unfair outcome.
The takeaway is that you need to be mindful about both your decision-making
process and the resulting outcomes.
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. 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.
For those who heard about the process before the
outcome, the fairness of the process (rather than whether they got the job or
not) predicted their overall satisfaction. For example, people who heard about
the process of evaluation, but found out that they were ultimately not hired, were OK with that outcome because they
believed the process leading to that decision had been fair. For
those who learned about the outcome first, the fairness of the outcome was more
important. For example, when people first heard that they were not hired,
without any explanation of the process used to arrive at that decision, they
immediately assumed that the decision was unfair. The study provides an
important lesson: when you’re using a fair process that might lead to an unfair
allocation, be sure to provide details about the process before your team
learns of the decision.
Even once you invest considerable effort in
deciding fairly, that’s no guarantee that it will be perceived that way by your
team. Don’t make the mistake of assuming
your decisions will speak for themselves. If you are focusing on an
equitable process for choosing who gets promoted, where you will weigh certain
competencies or styles more positively than others, make your intentions known
to your team. If you’re emphasizing an equal sharing of the bonus pool to
reinforce the importance of every member of the team, be upfront about it.
You are the boss and you have the discretion to
make those calls. Regardless of how you choose to make the difficult calls, it’s critical that you communicate what
you’re thinking. Transparency increases trust in the process and has value
for your employees above and beyond the specifics of the decision-making
In the end, we all learn that life isn’t fair. As a
boss, 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. You will always have an opportunity to restore balance with the next
Adapted HBR Oct 2018