Classic: Behaviors Managers Hate, Fairness

Originally published 11/30/2011

How many times have you heard someone say "it's not fair!"?

If you’re a manager, I'll bet the answer is “quite a lot,” and “all the time” if you're a parent.  To the credit of my adult employees least some of them seemed to realize that “fairness complaining” tends to wear thin, a fact that children seem to more-or-less ignore.

What sane manager wants to manage a bunch of overgrown children in the workplace?

“Why does she get…?”  “But you let so-and-so do it.”  “But how is that fair?”

After listening to these and other, similar comments many times over the years, I've come to a few conclusions about "fairness" and what it means.  I’ve also drawn a few conclusions about "fairness complainers" and what drives their behavior, as well.  And yes, I do think referring to such people as “fairness complainers” is pejorative.  I can’t help it.  Above all other annoying employee behaviors, this is the one I despise most of all.

  • "Fair" is not objective truth, it is a term steeped in relativism.  “Fair” is relative to expectations.  “Fair” is relative to others.  “Fair” is often relative to what you want (for yourself, mostly).  I’ve found “fairness” arguments delivered to me most often when someone is trying to convince me that I should do more for them.  No one wants to be seen as “unfair,” and applying the term liberally to try to sway things your direction is little more than emotional manipulation.

·         If you expect to get that promotion, but don't, it isn't "fair".  If you expect to be paid more, but aren't, that isn't "fair".  An employee's expectations set the fairness bar -- and how are those expectations set?  Usually based on looking at what happens with others.  Unfortunately, a superficial view of outcomes rarely reveals the rationale behind particular decisions.  Treating people differently is not inherently “unfair,” but it does fuel plenty of “fairness” arguments.

·         Susie got the corner office, but you have no window.  "Not Fair!"  And Susie has less seniority!  Forget about the fact that if the manager re-arranged the entire office there would be half a dozen other “fairness” complaints.  Forget about the fact that the boss needs Susie to office close to Larry, whom she works with regularly.  The actual motivation behind a well-reasoned decisions simply doesn’t matter to the “fairness complainer” as any decision that doesn’t favor them is simply not "fair".

·         Employees regularly overestimate their performance (the statistic I’m familiar with said that roughly 80% of employees believe they are in the top 10% of company performers).  Thinking you’re better than you really are fuels a belief that you are entitled to more, more, more.  If a person begins with delusions about their value, and then looks for opportunities to be offended by “unfairness,” they will no doubt find plenty of them.

  • Some employees whine, while others are silently affronted.  Thank goodness many seem to somehow avoid a fixation on "fairness."  No question, managers dislike whiners the most.  Whiners make the people around them unhappy (either empathetically through a heightened sensitivity to “fairness,” or because the complainers can be such a downer).  Whiners chew up large amounts of management time by voicing (often trivial, stupid) complaints and demanding they be redressed.  And no matter what a boss does to try to appease whiners they typically don’t stop.  Instead once they are satisfied along one dimension, they simply moving on to their next complaint.  Even silent “fairness complainers” can be a problem -- because one day they unexpectedly quit, their managers never understanding exactly what they "did" or "didn't do" to cause it.
  • Constant comparison to others seems to be behind "fairness" complaints.  In the age of information, if you want to find an unfavorable comparison to dwell on, there are literally thousands of sources out there.  Without much effort, a “fairness complainer” can cook up “evidence” that they are underpaid, underappreciated, and generally put upon by management.  I have repeatedly seen employees (engineers being one of the worst for this, which I feel free to say because I was an engineer, myself) scouring the internet to find pay comparisons that made their current compensation look unfavorable.  Instead of “build it and they will come,” the implied philosophy seems to fall more along the lines of “complain about it, and you will receive.”

As an employee one thing you can do to blunt this urge is to simply make different comparisons.  How does your lot in life compare to someone who is out of work?  Or homeless?  Or living in a place where they have no opportunities, regardless of ability?  If you must compare, compare against the bulk of humanity, rather than searching high and low for two or three examples of people who seem to have received more.

This the cover of LEVERAGE, the first book in the Carson/Lively series.  Click the image for more details.

This the cover of LEVERAGE, the first book in the Carson/Lively series.  Click the image for more details.

Or better yet, just ask yourself "Am I happy with the deal I'm getting?"  If the answer is "yes", then be happy and stop complaining.  If the answer is "no" then ask for what you need, but also be prepared to go elsewhere to get it if your employer balks.  And for crying out loud, save your complaints for things that really matter.  I’ll never understand why some people get so wound up over trivia that in the big scheme of things just doesn’t matter.

If you want to succeed in your job, you can also stop treating your managers like they are surrogate parents whose sole purpose in life is to keep everything “even-steven.”  Kids demand this all the time, but most parents realize that keeping everything the same is impossible and definitely doesn’t best meet the individualized needs of their children.

Undoubtedly your parents at some point told you that "life isn't fair," and if they didn’t, take it from me, it’s true.

Posts in the “Behaviors Managers Hate” Series

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This is the cover of my latest novel, PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES, released in April, 2014.  This story marks the return of LEVERAGE characters Mark Carson and Cathy Chin, now going by the name of Matt and Sandy Lively and on the run from the FBI.  The pair are working for a remote British Columbia lodge specializing in Corporate adventure/retreats for senior executives.  When the Redhouse Consulting retreat goes horribly wrong, Matt finds himself pursuing kidnappers through the wilderness, while Sandy simultaneously tries to fend off an inquisitive police detective and an aggressive lodge owner.

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.