What's Fair?

Sometimes being fair means special treatment, but that comes with risks.
February 17, 2010 AT 3:00 AM
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

What does it mean to be fair? We've written earlier about the impartial public servant and all the things that can erode impartiality. But let's suppose you are impartial. Suppose you are Leora Krygier, a judge in Los Angeles juvenile court, sentencing two seventeen-year-olds who have both pled guilty to driving 55 mph in a 35 mph zone. One lives in the wealthy area of Calabasas and drives a brand-new $60,000 BMW. The other comes from the very poor area of Pacoima and drives a fifteen-year-old Chevrolet. The law provides for a fine of $270 for this offense but allows the judge considerable discretion to levy a smaller fine.

Bob Stone addresses an issue I have been thinking about for some time - and is the subject of an upcoming column I have written for this page. The old definition of fairness - treat everyone the same - is the corollary of red tape. So then, isn't the essential result of treating everyone equally that everyone gets treated equally unfairly?

- Stephen Goldsmith

Most people would agree that both should be punished equally. But does that mean equal application of the rule? Imposing a $270 fine on each? This could mean a small annoyance for a rich kid from Calabasas but a crushing burden to a poor kid from Pacoima.

Perhaps fairness means equal pain, fining the rich kid $270 and the poor kid $50. That could work if the judge knew for sure that one was rich and one was poor. But the judge doesn't know, so she really can't tell what is most just. So she levies the same $270 fine on each. This practice satisfies both her conscience and her auditor.

Classical depictions of Justice show a blindfolded woman with scales in one hand and a sword in the other. The scales are to weigh the evidence, the sword to dispense punishment and the blindfold to keep her from knowing whether the young man is from Calabasas or Pacoima.

While Justice is blindfolded, managers are not. They know their subordinates have different abilities and different needs, but they're inhibited from treating subordinates differently because of personnel rules or to avoid appearing unfair or partial. Moreover, treating everybody by the same set of rules relieves managers of the need to make difficult judgments, and the need to explain them.

When it comes to meting out punishment, a supervisor must be wary of lawsuits. Many an employee who should have been fired has been allowed to stay on because of a fear of lawsuits. In our increasingly litigious society, we often demand formal proof of fairness. Unfortunately, being fair to the disruptive or slothful worker is being unfair to the other members of the workgroup who are left to work harder, or to the citizen who is poorly served.

This insistence on an impersonal fairness costs us a lot in terms of lost output, poor service to citizens and bitterness in the workplace.

While managers must be wary of lawsuits, they don't have to invent new shackles to keep them from meeting their responsibility. If a subordinate's family obligations or health calls for special understanding or even special treatment, fairness does not necessarily demand that he or she be denied that treatment.

Brenda K. was a highly effective manager who was suddenly faced with a family crisis. After taking a couple of vacation days, she realized she would have to miss more time from work and didn't know how much. Although she loved her job, her sense of responsibility led her to call her boss and ask to be relieved of her managerial position. Her boss sensed that she was in no condition to make such a decision and turned down her request, telling her to take the time she needed to take care of her family. It turned out to take less than two weeks before the crisis had passed and she was back at work. Brenda was treated as a person, not as a number - she got special treatment.

Everybody needs special treatment sometimes, and fairness allows - even demands - that they get it when they need it. If you believe in the Golden Rule, then you must treat others as you would like to be treated. We've all railed at being treated like a number. It's human nature to want to be treated as an individual, with unique needs and capabilities. And managing ethically, by the Golden Rule, demands it.

Managing ethically puts special demands on one's impartiality. If you're going to give special treatment to people when they need it, fairness - and sometimes the law - demands impartiality. But in an intimate work unit, true impartiality is impossible. You'll inevitably like one person more than another. The best one can do under these circumstances is to recognize one's biases, bend over backwards to not be influenced by them and be able to articulate - to oneself, if not to the auditors - the reason for the special treatment.

Managing ethically is harder than managing bureaucratically, and it entails some risk - someday it could land you in court. But an ethical person has no choice.


  • Balance the rulebook against the Golden Rule: Equal treatment for all versus special treatment for all.
  • Take account of your biases and bend over backwards to be impartial.
  • Sometimes you may have to risk a lawsuit to manage ethically.