[June 19, 2018] I got asked this question by a college student yesterday and thought it appropriate to write about it today. My answer to him was not simple and perhaps I made my comments overly complex but that is the nature of the concept of fairness. Do leaders treat everyone fairly?
The answer is “no” but only if inappropriate criteria are used to define fairness.
Being fair is a great idea but the misuse of it and the distortion of its original meaning makes discussing it difficult. Ideally, we treat everyone fairly in our daily transactions and in doing so, build trust and confidence in us as good leaders and moral human beings. Sounds like the right thing to do … it also sounds like first-rate common sense.
The problem with the concept of fairness is that the meanings we attach to it vary greatly. For example, when an employer from the United States treats someone fairly, they do so on the basis of giving equal opportunities for those who meet approved criteria (like experience and education) and reject inappropriate ones (like race and gender). A socialist, on the other hand, treats people on the basis of equal outcomes where race, gender, etc. are the main criteria.
Fairness, I will argue, is a narrow concept. It may mean treating people fairly based on economic, social, religious, racial, or a long list of specific, acceptable (or unacceptable) criteria. To illustrate, take two people with everything about them being equal but one has an extensive criminal record for violent behavior and illegally selling drugs to minors.
If a job offer is for a security position, neither would be denied based on race, gender, religion, etc., but upon their past behavior regarding the law. This is still a form of discrimination but acceptable both legally and ethically since the employer wants someone who can do the job that shows a long track record of being both loyal and trustworthy.
Was it fair to reject the other applicant who had a criminal record? Some people would suggest that the person denied the job because of their criminal record was not treated fairly. Some people today use criteria that in the past that would have meant being rejected.
My argument, however, has always been the same; be tough but fair (using socially-approved criteria). To me, being fair means providing opportunities, resources, and guidance. Being tough means holding them accountable for their actions. Good leaders (those who are most effective and who do the right things) will sometimes not treat people fairly but only if improper criteria are used to define “fairness.”