Fairness- in the Eye of the Beholder?

In my work the word “fairness” (or lack thereof) comes up often in discussions. What is fairness, why is it so difficult, and why is it important? A quick trip to Dictionary.com produces the definition: ”Fair implies the treating of all sides alike, justly and equitably.” Well that doesn’t sound too unrealistic to achieve. However, when I read the following quotes on fairness—one from Eleanor Roosevelt, the other from Oscar Wilde—they do appear to have different perspectives on the concept of fairness and what it might look like it:

“It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” Eleanor Roosevelt

“One should always play fair when one has the winning cards.” Oscar Wilde

The funny thing about fairness is how it’s analogous to the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What seems like fairness to one doesn’t necessarily pass muster for another. The obvious or blatant examples may get agreement, but it is in the micro-inequities of life that things become a little murkier.

So, is fairness situational? What factors dictate perceptions of fairness? Is it ethics or moral compass? Does it matter if I am the giver or receiver? Does it matter more how others around are behaving?

Bill Gates is quoted saying, “Life is not fair; get used to it.” Although I have never personally met the man I believe he like most people when asked would say that he would like to be perceived as a fair person. Moreover very few people I’ve encountered ever say they prefer to be treated unfairly when given the choice.

I believe fairness is an extremely important aspect of a civil and respectful society (and organization). According to organizational justice research, people are more satisfied with outcomes or results when they perceive that the process used was fair. This is true even when the outcome was less desirable, but the process was perceived as fair. While we cannot control people’s perception of fairness, there are things we can do that have been shown to contribute positively to perceptions of fairness. Tom Tyler has done extensive research on the topic of organizational justice. He suggests the following principles as critical factors of fair process:

  • Transparency
  • People have a voice (before decision is made)
  • Understandable reasons
  • Process is respectful
  • Process is reasonably consistent
  • Process is ethical