It’s unfair. A stance I’ve heard in a professional setting for almost 30 years. It’s come out of the mouths of managers, line-level employees, senior leadership, as well as my own mouth.
Fairness is a difficult concept. It’s often heavily influenced by an individual perspective of what is right, equitable and just in a particular situation rather than necessarily what is generally needed. For instance, when we hear of someone’s home being broken into by a drug-influenced burglar, and the homeowner is awakened and shoots the intruder, the response may be one of “Damn right!” However, if the drug-influenced burglar is your child who is struggling with addiction, the personal verdict is likely to change. You would be influenced by the personal connection to the killed burglar. It’s no longer about a general response but one of heartbreaking consideration for the plight of the individual struggling.
So, how do you handle situational responses from individuals?
- Listen – it’s wisest to hear the person out, not repeatedly, but at least once fully through. This listening should be active – ask clarity questions, ask next level questions, ask for examples.
- Repeat – once you have a handle on what has been shared, repeat some of what you heard back to the individual. There are times that merely repeating the struggle as presented opens the eyes of the person. There are times, too, where what was shared is offensive. It can be more difficult to hear said back to you when you have to affirm what you said. For instance, “You shared that ‘they seem to be getting everything.’ The ‘they’ you were referring to was Black people, correct?”
- Dissect – get to the real issue with the individual. “You shared that you’re upset that Maggie has requested to use her vacation time when you wanted to. You’ve, also, shared some details as to Maggie’s incompetence in her role. Is the issue that Maggie shouldn’t have her job or that you wish you had requested your vacation time sooner than Maggie?” And when the defensiveness sets in, if it does, be sure to dissect further. “Let me ask this: if you had requested your vacation sooner than Maggie, would you be coming to me to discuss your perception of Maggie’s incompetence?” The heart of the matter is in there somewhere. Again, use the words offered by the individual back to the person, in this instance, in question form.
- Resolve – it’s okay to disappoint the individual. Every struggle is not going to be met with a homerun response followed by a euphoric reaction. That’s not reality. The goal is resolution. Here’s what I heard you share -> here’s where there seems to be confusion -> here’s what the issue seems to be -> here’s what can be done about it (even if just one option). And above all, don’t let the issue linger. Deal with it as quickly as possible once the struggle is shared.
And lest we forget, these moments are also teaching moments, particularly in the arena of bias. All kinds of scary and subversive bias will creep out. Do not let that go. Repeat it back and challenge it. It’s not okay for a sense of fairness to be code for “I’m better, that type of person isn’t worthy or that group of people already gets enough.” It’s about systemically fighting against bias that is unjust, disregards equity and, ultimately, is discrimination.
Fair is not what we can consistently expect, even on our best days. However, the framework for fairness may be flawed so much that it’s difficult for many to know the difference. If you have corporate values that speak to transparency, collaboration, inclusion and justice, then take the time to define what that means to the organization. Without context, you’re asking each person to define those terms based upon what seems fair and right to the individual. That’s going to cause more issues. Address it, set the tone and then respond to the individuals who struggle with applying those values fairly.