Most managers would claim they attempt to manage fairly but often fairness is measured by individual experiences and what is fair to one is considered unfair to another. When these situations become conflicts and are discussed, the manager feels uncertain because he/she understands the other perspective. A manager should always attempt to increase trust and fairness by his/her actions, but how can this be achieved? In reality fairness is difficult to define. This might be a good time to use the phase, “I will know it when I see it.” I suspect this phase applies more to unfairness. We can recognize blatant unfairness but their are so many situations when a manager attempts to make a fair decision and some find it fair and others feel mistreated.
In the early years of my career I was privileged to be mentored by some wise managers. One of them made this statement, “You can not always be fair but you can be equal.” This lesson was driven into my thinking by something that happened during that time. I had been placed in my first management role. I was production manager of one of two manufacturing units on the site. In fact my unit was the supplier to the other unit and we were under great pressure to continuously increase throughput. I had a great team and knew we would be breaking new production records together. Therefore I got the bright idea to recognize their efforts and let them know how I felt. When we next broke a production record, I would buy every employee in my unit (25 -30 people) a steak dinner at one of the local steak houses. We broke a record almost immediately and I proceeded to schedule each shift and my engineers to one of four nights at the steak house. Everyone was so excited… Everyone except maintenance (who kept my unit running), quality control (who tested everything quickly), warehouse, purchasing, the other manufacturing unit, etc.. You get the picture. Everyone outside my unit was so disappointed that I had not even recognized their contribution to the record setting. Needless to say I was summoned to the corner office and given a lesson about fairness. Soon every employee at the site was having a steak dinner (about 300 people) and all of them knew it was because I failed the equal test. Ok… so no permanent damage but at that time I didn’t know if the plant manager would remember this forever.
Here is another story to show the lesson learned. Later in my career I was asked about flexible hours. What a great idea! Allowing people flex in the starting and quitting time so they can manage family and personal issues. The young production manager above would have approved the idea and implemented immediately. However what about being equal? At manufacturing plants it is critical for various employees to arrive at the agreed time to allow switch over to a new shift. Flextime is often impractical. The office workers however could easily have flextime but how would it be seen by the manufacturing employees? Many manufacturing workers already believe that office workers have it easy so this would be proof of a conspiracy of injustice. My decision was that all employees at an individual site should be treated equal. I am sure that some would have called this unfair regardless of my decision but overtime everyone accepted the wisdom of treating everyone equal. (I’m just glad the office workers brought this idea to me before they implemented so I could apply the equal rule.)
As a manager you have accountability for building collaboration in your team. Your manager has a similar accountability and therefore some of your decisions must be coordinated across the larger organization and management system. Apply the equal rule to your decisions but consider the impact across the entire organization.