Loving unfairness at work

Can we divide the sweeties fairly?

Fairness is meaningless and therefore an unhelpful goal. Instead get clear on values, design systems to live them, and embrace the unfairness of it all.

Fairness is a sacred cow

If you’re in a meeting discussing a decision that affects people, nobody will argue with you if you say that you have come up with something fair. It feels like a universal, decent, human value.

Yet nobody agrees exactly what fairness actually means, making it useless as a guide for making decisions.

The dictionary definition doesn’t help. Fairness is typically defined as being just. Yet if you look up justice you’ll be pointed straight back to fairness. It’s a loop.

What fairness really means

Fairness sounds like it means something specific but it’s actually an umbrella term sheltering a range of subjective value judgements. When people say ‘fair’ they might mean equality, equitability, consistency, meritocracy, moderation, kindness or many other things. Or perhaps a combination of things with different weightings.

If your value system views something as ‘right’ then you’ll probably consider it ‘fair’ if people are treated in line with that value. Yet values are inherently subjective, so you can only conclude that ‘fairness’ is also completely subjective.

Fairness and rewards

Take discussions about financial rewards at work for example. Most leaders will strive to devise a rewards system that’s ‘fair’. But what do they really mean by that? Usually it’s based on some kind of balance between meritocracy (paying people based on the value they create); equitability (paying people in line with others creating similar value); and equality (perhaps not paying the highest earners grossly more than everyone else, and removing gender inequality.) Often companies also look externally at market rates.

Yet even by delicately balancing those things, you might still end up paying people less than the local cost of living. Is that fair? Perhaps signing up to paying at least a living wage is fair. And what about an individual’s financial needs? Should someone get paid more because they have children to support? What if they decide they want to send their kids to a private school? What if they’re supporting an elderly or disabled relative? What if it’s a gambling-addicted relative? Where do you draw the line on what is ‘fair’? And how many possible situations and variables can you factor in? These are all subjective questions of values.

I’ve watched companies in endless frustration trying to tweak their rewards process to somehow, finally, get to what is ‘fair’ so that everyone’s happy. This is well-meaning but hopeless ambition.

Beyond fairness

If fairness isn’t the objective then you need to take a different approach.

Firstly, instead of talking about fairness, talk directly about the underlying value judgements. What are they? How are they prioritised? Who decides what the values are? How do these values align with the reason the organisation was started in the first place?

In this way you can create your own unique criteria for systems such as rewards, then using this as a brief you can use a creative process to design and test different approaches. The difference is that you never promise anyone that it’ll be fair, but instead based on clear values.

If you accept there is no such thing as fair then you also have to accept that there will also be unfairness, and that’s a good thing. If you prioritise equality above all else like many worker-owned cooperatives do then the rewards system will appear grossly unfair to anyone who believes meritocracy is paramount. And that needs to be OK. Perhaps a worker-owned coop isn’t the right place for somebody with that value to work.

Challenges to a system should never be made based on it being ‘unfair’. Instead it should be challenged if there’s a clear case to be made that it doesn’t live up to the values, or if there is debate to be had about the values themselves. This makes criticism far more specific and therefore possible to work with. Perhaps new ideas can be generated which better live the values, or maybe there has been a shift in the consciousness of members of the group and now some different values are more important.

So it’s time to stop making fairness the goal. Get stuck in to meaningful conversations about values and designing systems to live them… and embrace unfairness.

Thanks to Peter Koenig who first challenged me with the notion that “there’s no such thing as fair.”


Tom Nixon coaches and advises founders and other leaders building progressive, values-based organisations. He’s also the founder of Maptio, the online tool to visualise organisations without traditional management hierarchy.

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