On fairness

“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.”
~ Michael Pollan

Out of all my values, fairness ranks fairly highly: most likely in the top one or two. There is little that frustrates me more than lack of fairness, and in a workplace/societal context it is rife.

Some examples:

Lack of fairness shown by colleagues:

  • Colleagues who turn up late each day, taking long lunch breaks and then leaving the same time as everyone else, only to never catch up on any work from home;
  • Colleagues who blatantly disobey leave request procedures and take leave whenever they wish without peer consultation and without any consideration of work/project demands;
  • Colleagues who are act above and beyond other employees by refusing to do tedious, but necessary, tasks.

Lack of fairness shown by employers:

  • Punishing all employees in reaction to a handful of employees misbehaviours: eg. strictly filtering Internet access because someone accessed something they shouldn’t have, taking away or stripping back employee entitlements for everyone due to misuse by the minority;
  • Continuing to promote employees who aren’t considered leaders amongst their peers;
  • Practicing ‘positive’ discrimination through employment quotas and ignoring other hardships that employees may have faced.

Lack of fairness shown by Governments:

  • Preferential tax treatment of the well-off. An example in Australia is negative gearing, a unique situation where the wealthy are entitled to tax payer subsidies for investment properties whilst ordinary Australians who rent get nothing.

Combating lack of fairness

“Do you truly believe that life is fair, Senor de la Vega?
-No, maestro, but I plan to do everything in my power to make it so.”
~ Isabel Allende, Zorro

What can you do to combat the rampant lack of fairness?

The only thing we can do is model behaviour ourselves that we want to see in the world, so this means striving for fairness in all that you do. It also means calling out lack of fairness. This is particually tricky as it gets a lot of people offside, but in the long run it is well worthwhile.

Author: Alister Scott

Alister is an Excellence Wrangler for Automattic.

7 thoughts on “On fairness”

  1. Great points !
    Achieving fairness on all aspects might be impossible, but it’s certainly something we should strive for.
    Some issues are due to lack of awareness that our behavior is unfair to someone else.
    Also some rules are introduced either without looking at possible consequences from different perspectives or are introduced with good intentions, but the overall consequences might be very difficult to predict for complex systems.
    For negative gearing, there are some good effects as well as bad as described in “social matters” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_gearing_(Australia)
    When it comes to tax matters it might make sense to put new rules on a “probation period” or some checkpoints and evaluate the results from different views and perhaps with some public or expert consultation afterwards. This might be problematic if the only engagement for lot of people is voting every few years, which basically causes laws to be introduced just to “get the votes” without regard for long-term consequences or just replaced by the next governing party.

    As for some people working less time or refusing to do tedious tasks I think there might be few reasons. They could have different priorities (f.e. spend more time with family), have some problems or hardships that prevent them from fully focusing for the whole day. They also might work more effectively in shorter bursts and trying to stay focused for long periods of time just makes the work feel boring to them and decreases their morale. It certainly helps to do interesting work where you can learn new things that are applicable to other activities as well and share/rotate working on tedious tasks, or even better automate them if it makes sense :)
    Another option that might be considered is working less for less pay, something that I’m sure some people would consider.

    Personally I didn’t find people taking unexpected leave to be a big problem on projects, rather the usual procedures to be too rigid and project plans not having enough margin for unexpected events and the need to “recharge batteries”. That is one of the reasons why so called lifestyle businesses become more popular.

    Positive discrimination is an interesting subject. You certainly don’t end up with average societal representation and it feels “unfair”. On the other hand if used properly it increases diversity and gives you more varied perspectives on a lot of things, something that might be difficult to achieve in average setting where people are hired based purely on skills or experience needed for the job at hand.
    It very much depends what perspectives you want to include and it’s a choice based on where you want to go as a company. Hiring based on more dimensions can increase innovation in the company or decrease retention if your choice of dimensions is not in line with the company’s vision or existing employees.


  2. On the point about fairness. Yes, life is not fair. But the bigger question is what about personal ethics. A person’s ethics and view on things is what facilitates their perception of fairness, both personal and societal. The problem has been the degradation of ethics by individuals, corporations and governments. Why? Good question and I don’t have an answer. But when you hold yourself, and others, to a higher standard you can help to improve/promote ethics. Although if you push to high you run the risk of putting people off as ‘holier-than-thou”, and defeat the purpose of promoting those higher ethical standards. It is a balancing act.

    The trick is to promote it and live it. First by doing if yourself, and then your children and finally making a stand as a society when the time is right. Just like life isn’t fair, being ethical and holding others to those standards is equally difficult. Do the best you can everyday.


  3. Credibility is a key to being effective in righting wrongs. The best way to gain credibility is to identify unfair situations in which we benefit, or have no personal interest in the result. To only point out situations that we benefit will appear to only look out for our interest.


  4. Just for the record- I am actively for positive discrimination- as long as the candidate has the skills and the aptitude to do the job. (Having said that; I’m against hiring a deficient hire just because they possess some “is a..” attribute.)
    I believe firmly that if a pattern is allowed to run its course, it will continue and self sustain. The only way to alter it- is to change the pattern itself forcefully, often against the will of people who benefit or propagate the existing pattern.
    The problem is simple: if we value experience, those granted the most chances for experience will always be the ones we hire. If we value scores from Uni, the people who can afford to be at Uni most, or the gender/socio economic group/ethnic group/sexual preference group most represented there is statistically most likely to be the ones we hire, ergo: no change to the pattern.
    I’ll take positive discrimination until someone has a better idea to right the wrongs of the past.


    1. Positive discrimination is another form of Eye for an Eye. If you think that rights wrongs of the past then, I don’t know what to say.

      The best way to right those wrongs is to immortalize them in history so that future generations may learn from those mistakes. Nothing more, nothing less.


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