The idea of fairness is something we all define very personally. Some people emphasize freedom and individualism when they think about what’s fair; they believe in general that people are personally responsible for overcoming adversity. Others, meanwhile, think about what’s fair with far more emphasis on interdependence; they believe it’s unfair for individuals to face extreme adversity, and see it as the responsibility of institutions and other people to step in and help. These notions begin forming within us at very young ages, as we learn our first moral lessons and digest our earliest experiences of what we believe to be unfair.
Lately, as several workplace debates have raised the question of what is fair within companies, leaders have seen firsthand just how complicated and personal fairness can be to navigate.
Take for instance the debate around location-based cost-of-living adjustments. Remember the mass exodus we saw during COVID-19, when many workers moved to other areas of the country to enjoy a better work-life balance, to be closer to family (or nature) and to stretch their salary further than Manhattan or Silicon Valley would allow? For organizations that regularly base salaries on the relative cost-of-living in the areas they operate, that employee exodus certainly brought fairness to light in several ways.
How fair was it for an employee moving from San Francisco to Boise to retain their Silicon Valley pay? Or to see it adjusted downward to reflect the cheaper cost-of-living in Boise? How fair would it be to a Chicago employee to determine that their new co-worker — who does the exact same job — had retained their Manhattan salary?
The situation was a stark reminder that fairness is always very personal.
It seems that no matter the topic, truth begins to splinter like this when you ask a group of people what’s fair. How much can employees fairly expect leadership to weigh their input? What technology behaviors can we fairly expect all employees to adopt, regardless of age or digital fluency? What on a resume is fair to value when hiring for an open role?
Is it fair to take an organizational stance on a divisive political issue? What about the other employees who think it's unfair to stay silent?
Dive into any of these debates and what you quickly see is that none are straightforward. If you’re a leader making critical decisions for an organization, you need to take the time to understand the nuances within everyone’s position, and do your best to anticipate the impact your decisions will have. Still, leaders who operate like it’s possible to do what feels fair to everyone while also doing what’s best for the business quickly find themselves in an endless game of whack-a-mole, with every concession yielding new fires to put out and follow-up complaints to answer. At some point, a leader has to call the ball and stick to it.
For me, this all points back to the remarkable, unyielding power of clarity. As a leader, it’s not possible to please everybody. It is possible, however, to set clear expectations, and to be as transparent and consistent as possible in your approach to decisions. Leaders who offer an honest look behind the curtain into how they think will still upset some employees, but they are not bound to alienate people or lose their own credibility as they do.
The old adage that “If you try to please everyone, you please no one” really is true. As a leader, you can’t expect everyone to agree with how you see it. You can, however, ensure everyone has the chance to understand how you see it.
If they can count on clarity, they can ultimately count on you.