We hear a lot about fairness. And no wonder. Nothing is more frustrating than being on the short end of an unfair situation.
But words mean things, so we must be careful that what we say is what we mean. For example, “fairness” and “fair share” can be two different things, and confusing the meanings has caused heaps of needless problems in the workplace.
Roget’s Thesaurus equates “fairness” with “the quality or state of being just and unbiased.” Other synonyms include equitableness, impartiality, and objectiveness.
On the other hand, a “fair shake” is “a fair chance, as at achieving success.”
Essentially, with regard to the workplace, all civil rights legislation is supposed to guarantee everyone a “fair shake.” That is, a fair chance at achieving success.
No workplace can ever guarantee equal success among its employees. Yet strangely, some perceive fairness to mean exactly that. A fair shake can provide the right to pursue success, but frankly, human nature doesn’t allow for equality in achieving it. This is one of the dangers in misusing the concept of fairness.
Every person is equipped with different skills. An environment of fairness, which I will call a “fair shake,” allows each of us to develop our skills to the best of our ability. We choose whether we want to develop our skills or whether we let them sit idle.
Problems pour in when people who are not working on developing their skills accuse those who are of not being fair.
A long-time acquaintance of mine, who refers to himself as a Black American, works as a manager for a large, nation-wide company. We’ll call him Bill, which is not his real name, as he asked that neither he nor his company be identified.
Bill believes strongly that racial minorities should not play the race card to try to level the playing field. He’s concerned that many have taken “fairness” to mean equal results, not equal opportunity, and he believes this is wrong. “Minorities need to see the opportunities before them,” Bill says. “The opportunities are there, but many black people are not even trying to take advantage of them.”
“I have to have integrity,” Bill continues, “I look at everyone equally and I want to be treated the way that I treat people. I don’t ever want to use the race card—it’s a scapegoat approach.”
But Bill also believes he has to hold himself to a very high standard. “A cloud follows black individuals because of stereotypes. You have to have your ducks in order. You can’t slack off.”
Gender differences are another area that face “fair shake” problems. The proverbial glass ceiling continues to exist, which not only provides unequal pay for equal work, but prevents many women from breaking through the “good ol’ boy” barrier.
An article appearing earlier this year in the Silicon Valley Business Journal states “women still comprise just 15 percent of executive leaders and just 12 percent of board members in top communications companies.”
Here again, many women feel they need to hold themselves to higher standards in order to get ahead.
But the “fair shake” problem can also work in reverse. Josephine, another acquaintance, works in a female-dominated industry. She says “the few men who work in my department are constantly belittled and looked down on. They get passed over for promotion and training opportunities.”
And another friend of mine—Dave, who is white—talks about a time he got a job in an all-black business. The day Dave started the job, one of the customers—who was black—asked Dave’s boss, “where’d you get the white boy?” Dave’s boss just laughed, which puzzled Dave. He is confident that had the color roles been reversed, it would have been grounds for a lawsuit.
Bottom line, what we should be striving for is not equal outcome, but rather a fair shake (equal opportunity). Bill, my Black American acquaintance, says that “everyone needs the same opportunity to apply for a position, but selection to that position needs to be objective.” In other words, standards are standards. “If people don’t meet the standards,” Bill says, “it’s certainly not fair to promote them.”