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Justice vs. Fairness

Fairness Vs. Justice

by Bryan Emmerson


I have noted in previous blogs that my preferred method of communication is with questions, but when I must make a statement, I prefer to catch people off guard a little bit. One such instance was when I was approached by an employee who informed me that he didn’t think he was being paid what he was worth. I replied, “I certainly hope not … the last thing I want to do is pay someone what they are worth.” With a stunned look on his face he asked me what I meant. I answered, “If we paid everyone what they were worth then by definition the company would break even. And if the company doesn’t make money, it doesn’t stay in business, so every employee must contribute more than they’re worth for us to have long-term success.”

Another time I was having a conversation with an employee, and he made the statement, “Well, that’s not fair!” Again, I wanted to get his attention, so I said, “Well last thing I want to do is be fair.” Ironically, there was the same stunned look and question, “What do you mean?”

I said, “Imagine that instead of a manufacturing company we were a landscaping crew divided into three groups. One group was raking the lawn, one group was digging holes, and the other group was moving rocks. If I was to give each person a rake, what would you think?”  “I would think you are poor manager”, he replied.  “Why”, I asked. “Because only one group needed rakes. The other groups needed shovels and pickaxes”. “But I was being fair I said. I was treating everybody the same.”  “But you weren’t giving them what they needed”, he said. “So you’re telling me that it’s better to give people the right thing rather than the same thing?  Or said another way, it is better to be just rather than fair?”, I asked.  “Yes, I guess I do”, he concluded. “Me too”. I said.

Another example of this concept is when I had three employees exhibiting the same negative behaviour, coming in late. One employee had been with us for about three months, the second was a 15 year employee with a very mediocre track record; he’d managed to not get himself fired for 15 years. The third employee was a stellar employee up to this point. My response to each of them was different. The first employee was terminated. My position was that if he couldn’t hold it together for three months when he was supposedly giving his best to impress a new employer, he was not what we were looking for. The second employee (15 years with mediocre performance) found himself at the beginning of our disciplinary process. The last employee was different again. My conversation with him started with, “Joe (not his real name), what’s wrong? This is not like you. How can I help?”

Some might view this as favouritism, but I disagree. Favouritism means I treat you differently because I like you. Justice means I treat you differently because your behaviour warrants it. 

I believe that loyalty goes two ways; if we want it from our employees then we need to give it. Joe had given us years of faithful service, and I wanted to reciprocate. Three individuals, same behaviour, three different responses. Right not the same … Justice not fairness. 


I hope this has been helpful, and remember …

Your success matters!

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