Ask any manager if she or he strives to be fair and equitable in her or his dealings with subordinates and you will rarely get a negative response. By the time we reach adulthood, these two concepts are well ingrained in most of us and we fully grasp their importance for interpersonal relationships of all kinds. But strive though we might for fairness and equity in our dealings with others, whether they will deem that we have succeeded is often an outcome beyond our control.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that whether our actions appear fair and equitable depends on “the eyes of the beholder”. Whatever we may think of our actions, others will pass their own subjective judgement for good or ill. And, as any good manager will tell you, being accused of being unfair by a subordinate is generally a sticky wicket that is difficult to confront. Our initial reaction is often denial, followed by attempts to explain our behavior from our own perspective. But it is often impossible to know whether we have successfully altered another’s perception, regardless of what they might say.
My advice to managers when accused of acting unfairly, or of implementing some policy in an inequitable way, is to LISTEN FOR UNDERSTANDING. Since another’s perception is their reality, listening for understanding is a sign of respect that opens an avenue for dialog that denial or an argumentative response closes off. When we understand and are able to appreciate how another has reached their conclusion regarding an action of ours — whether it is how we see it or not — we are better able to respond constructively and to catalog what we learn for future reference. The best managers are always the learning managers.
But responding to an accusation of unfairness is reactive. How do the best managers become proactive in attempting to ensure as much fairness and equity in their behavior and decision-making as they can? The simple answer is that they think about the challenge involved often, with special attention to when discrimination among subordinates is acceptable and when it is not.
In the “Black Swan”, a thoroughly fascinating exploration of the significant impact of highly improbable events when they occur, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses what he calls “scalable” occupations and professions. These are occupations where education, experience, talent, the measurements of success for that particular profession, and often just plain luck can lead to wide disparities in pay, benefits, bonuses, and opportunities among subordinates. This may seem unfair to some but managers have little authority to alter the differences. They are simply part of the organizational fabric within which managers and subordinates must work.
Engineers, scientists, lawyers, and technical specialists in most organizations will earn more than those with bachelor degrees or no college education at all. Professional occupations generally out-earn support occupations. Global organizations tend to reward employees who can travel and relocate during their careers in more generous ways — especially through advancement — than those employees who, for whatever reason, must remain in one place. Again this may seem unfair to many but managers, while able to explain the business imperatives for these disparities, haven’t the power nor reason to level the playing field. Fortunately most subordinates understand and accept these disparities.
On the other hand, there are plenty of policies, procedures, and decisions that fall within a manager’s authority where she or he will be held strictly accountable by subordinates for fair and equitable treatment. Pay discrimination among employees of equal skill, work requirements, and performance output based upon gender or race, will certainly result in complaints and often law suites. The perception of unfair application and favoritism with regard to leave or scheduled absence policies, performance bonuses and awards, continuing education needs, and career advancement and legitimate assignment opportunities, will eventually get most managers into hot water. The same holds true for excessive selectivity in deciding which subordinate’s advice and opinions a manager seeks and acknowledges.
Like most elements of a manager’s job, there is no magic formula that allows us to know what will seem fair and equitable to subordinates in every situation. Not all situations and not all subordinates can — or should — be treated the same. Attempting, for example, to dole out exceptional performance award money in equal parts to your entire staff in an effort to seem fair, will only make you seem unfair in the eyes of those subordinates who rightly deserve them.
You must always exercise managerial judgment with regard to what you believe is fair and equitable in the decisions you make and inevitably there will be times when your subordinates challenge you. The best managers understand this and consequently weigh the fair and equitable elements of their decisions very carefully. Of equal importance, the best managers remain open to the perceptions of others and maintain the flexibility to adapt and make changes when necessary.