Fair Manage­ment

Life isn't fair, so why would you expect, or work towards, a fair workplace?
As it turns out, you do reap what you sow, and a fair workplace brings you clear business value.

  10 min read

Fairness has always been something very dear to me.

Whenever I revisited the idea of writing this article, I naïvely believed it was a somewhat new perspective on management. Of course not. Manager fairness has been talked and written about for many years and there are numerous articles from reputable sources. Fairness itself is one of the most important principles of human morality and justice. No wonder it's so important in the workplace.

Yet so many managers seem to be unable to recognize it or understand how just (fair) their actions are perceived. In this article I'll start with some example situations, dive into understanding fairness, draw its limits at the workplace, present its business case, expose the difficulty in being fair and finish with some solutions to enable fairness.

“Is this fair?”

If you need to ask something of others, especially of people who you lead, ask yourself this: “Is this fair?”

Take these three managers.

Alice was having a 1:1 meeting with one of her reports. She tells him how she found some of his work subpar, how he should've done better and what actions he should take in the future. As the report tries to justify himself, she stops him: “There are no excuses for this,” she says.

Was this fair? Perhaps what she failed to listen to is that another of her reports (a new hire) severely broke data he needed, and he was helping him learn and fix it. Would you want this person on your team, or somebody who would leave the new guy to his own devices?

Bob's boss is furious and, in a meeting, lashes out at him unfairly. Annoyed that he can't yell back, Bob rushes to his team and lashes out himself.

Was this fair?

Claire tells her report that their sponsor asked for things to be done Red, but they should improve upon that by doing them Blue. When they both meet with their sponsor, the sponsor complains things aren't Red. Claire looks at her report's work, makes a surprised look and just says “You're right”.

Was this fair?

Each time you're unfair to your reports, you're increasing their job dissatisfaction. Can you prevent this by simply asking yourself “Is this fair?” What is “fair” after all?

Fairness can be a fuzzy thing

Fairness is clearly a human construction, an outcome of human intelligence, philosophy and morals, correct?

Well, some authors would disagree. It seems to be a principle of even broader morals, also found in animals.

Frans de Waal at TED: Moral behavior in animals

Even though you feel unfairness done unto you instinctively, it may not be as obvious when you're the one controlling the situation. An unfair action may not scream as unfair to you as it will to the person you're directing that action towards. This is normal, and when in doubt, the trick is to put yourself in that person's shoes—ask yourself: “Is this how I would like to be treated?”

But even then fairness can be fuzzy. Let's look at an example.

David hired Ed for a job opening with a fair market salary at the time. Three years have passed, the economy is booming, and despite annual raises at the top of his class at the company, Ed's salary is now quite below the market and David needs to hire someone new with the exact same experience. Furthermore, he will only be successful if he offers the current market salary, so the newcomer will be getting a higher salary than his 3-year colleague.

Is this fair? Is this how you'd like to be treated?

This is quite hazy. Market conditions have brought this to be, without the fault of any of the players.

The definition of what is fair, and the feasibility of being fair can be hard. Ultimately, fairness can be utopian. Don't blame yourself too hard, if you can't seem to be fair all the time. And if you're on the receiving end, try to get the whole picture to understand if your boss was at all able to be fair.

What fairness is not

So, you're now getting used to asking yourself “is this how I'd like to be treated?” and you realize you can easily take it too far. You may want to be treated with a trip to the spa and unlimited holidays. Where do you draw the line?

Well, fairness depends on the context, and you're trying to be fair at the workplace. Like in any other relationship, both parties want something out of it: you want a salary and the company wants professional work.

In this context, fairness is not being the cool guy. It is not being the boss that gives his reports everything they ask for. It is not the boss that doesn't demand results. It is not the boss that never provides negative feedback, when negative feedback is warranted.

All those things are important (and fair) in a business setting. But they should be communicated properly, and you should make sure you are really being fair, e.g., make sure you provide negative feedback for something that report actually did wrong, not something you feel he might have done wrong. Promote conversations, provide context and treat people as the smart people they are. Fairly.

Fairness is also not a silver bullet. By itself, fairness can be utopian as we've seen. It's impossible to be fair all the time. And it is not the only tool in your manager toolset. Empowerment, providing a sense of purpose, foresight into an employee's career wishes, mentoring and many other tools are needed. And an employee will expect them.

The business case for fairness

“What's in it for me?” the business may ask. Why should top-level leadership promote fairness across the company?

Fairness promotes trust and in turn happy and engaged employees. Those will likely treat customers very well, which will promote such customers to return, increasing your revenue. Furthermore, those customers are more likely to speak well of your company, promoting new customers to reach out to you.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, says:

It should go without saying, if the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the brand and you give them the tools to do a good job and they are treated well, they're going to be happy.


If the person who works at your company is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile (…) By not treating employees well, companies risk losing customers over bad service.


Effectively, in the end shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy.

Richard Branson: Put your staff 1st, customers 2nd and Shareholders 3rd

Other studies have come to confirm this. A Gallup 2013 study showed that companies that were placed in the top quartile of employee engagement had 21% more productivity and 22% more profitability than the remaining ¾. Another study by Aon Hewitt in the same year found that for every one percent increase in employee engagement, companies can expect to see as much as 0.6% in revenue growth.

Happy and engaged employees also tend to stay longer, with turnover dropping by as much as 65% according to the same Gallup study. They'll be more proficient in the way your company works, making it move along consistently fast. This will mean lower hiring and training costs for replacement positions.

Let's bullet point this. Fairness brings to business:

  • Increased revenue through
    1. Higher rate of returning customers
    2. More customers through word-of-mouth of good service
    3. Increased productivity from higher employee engagement
  • Lower hiring and training costs for replacement positions

It's not easy

The Judgement of Solomon is a story from the Hebrew Bible that accounts of two women, both claiming to be the mother of the same baby boy, being brought to king Solomon for justice.

With no DNA tests at your disposal, how would you make a fair ruling?
Who is the true mother?

King Solomon orders the baby to be cut in half and given to each woman. His intentions: to reveal the mother. She begs the ruler to let the boy live and foregoes her claim, to her sadness. King Solomon cancels the order and gives her the baby.

In April 2011, AWS had a major outage that took down many high-profile Web sites for hours and days. The culprit: human error. A command for a maintenance operation was done incorrectly and this triggered a series of events that took down some core AWS systems in the US East region, and with it sites such as Foursquare, Reddit and Quora. AWS' reputation suffered a severe blow.

What would you do with the engineer who was responsible?

Years later Werner Vogels, CTO of AWS, was interviewed about this event.

Vogels places the blame not on the engineer directly responsible, but Amazon itself, for not having failsafes that could have protected its systems or prevented the incorrect input. “I think we can blame ourselves, in terms of not having turned this into sort of a procedure or something that was automated, where we could've had total good control (…).”

Humans make mistakes, and managers make decisions on which procedures to invest in and automate to avoid those mistakes. This manager (Vogels) recognized it were these decisions, not the engineer, who were ultimately to blame.

There are no recipes to being fair. There are no magic bullets.

And it's not easy being fair even when you do know what you should do. As a manager, you may find yourself caught in unfair demands that upper management wants to place on your team—unreasonably long working hours as standard, or frequently adding weekly responsibilities without hiring new people, for example. How can you, in turn, be fair to your team?

There is no easy answer here, I'm afraid. You need to provide feedback to your boss that the situation cannot endure. But if this doesn't change, there is a hard choice to be made: no job lasts forever, so you may find yourself needing peer references. Will those references speak of you the way you want to be seen and work? Will they keep doing so if you're required to repeatedly be unfair to your reports?

Enabling fair management

At Farfetch, one of our core values is “Be Human.” That name says it all, and whereas I can't speak for the intentions of leadership when they created this value, I can say I feel I have my back covered when I want to be fair to my team. If you're in a position to write your company values, make sure you provide guidelines and room for fairness. The same goes to OKRs, KPIs and similar performance guidelines.

It's then up to the middle to low-level managers to implement fairness across most of your company.

Take Alice for instance. She stopped one of her reports from providing further detail into a situation. Without a clear picture, she wasn't be able to make good (fair) decisions. As you're a manager, listen. What we socially call “excuses” are really just more details into a situation, and they just may or may not tilt your perception of that situation. You can't read minds, so you don't know if the report is trying to hide poor work. Just listen. Inquire more details if needed. Make your best (fair) judgement and then ask yourself: “how would I want to be treated?” Alice should have kept listening.

Take Bob. His boss wasn't fair to him at all by lashing out. That's however not a free pass to be unfair yourself. Put yourself in your team's shoes: “how would I want to be treated next?” Take a deep breath, think how you'd have liked your boss to give you that information, and when you need to pass it on to your team do it the way it should have been done in the first place. Bob should have been better than his own boss.

Take Claire. She tells her report to take their work in a specific direction, but when confronted with the disappointment of their sponsor, she does not own up to her decisions, and responds in a way that could imply the report had made that decision himself, without her knowledge. As a manager, she should have brought her report in on the decision: “I believe this should instead be done Blue. What do you think?” When the sponsor shows his disappointment, she should have explained the situation: “We believe Blue is an improvement upon Red, because of (reasons). What do you think?”

Take David. He hired someone new at a higher salary than Ed who has been with the company for three years. Ed is bound to find out and feel undervalued. While Ed's emotion is jealousy which is seen poorly in social circles, this jealousy has good grounding and is fair: if the jobs are the same and Ed's been proving his value and loyalty at the company for a reasonable amount of time, why is he getting a lower reward than a newcomer? David could try to increase Ed's salary to match as long as company policy allowed this. If he is unable to raise Ed's salary, research shows David's conundrum is eased by explaining to Ed his (fair) process of determining the salaries.

A 2015 Gallup study, found that managers are responsible for a 70% variance in employee engagement. Find those 10% in teams who are natural leaders. Coach and promote them, as well as existing managers. Judge them all fairly. Let them know you're trying to be fair to them, and you'll inspire the same behavior in them as well. Be hard on leaders who are consistently unfair.

In the end you'll be doing what research shows are essential factors in implementing fair (performance) management:

  1. Transparently link employees' goals to business priorities
  2. Invest in the coaching skills of managers to help them become better arbiters of day-to-day fairness
  3. Reward standout performance

What are you waiting for? Be fair.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash