Ethical Responses: Fairness


Bruce Weinstein is the author of Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond.  He talks about dog pawthe idea of “Ethical Intelligence” being the equivalent of “Emotional Intelligence” that became the rage in the 1990s.  His five guiding principles of Ethical Intelligence are:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. Make things better.
  3. Respect others.
  4. Be fair.
  5. Be loving.

Nothing could be simpler, or more difficult.

Fairness is a concept that is elemental in business; it’s the presumption that makes commerce and workplace transactions possible. We expect fair pay, a fair price, a fair offer, fair treatment and fair trade. But what happens when something is not fair?

Humans regard fairness as an important virtue, but don’t get a big head – we’re not alone.  According to a 2008 New York Times article, even dogs get disgusted when they perceive uneven treatment.

“Scientists in Austria report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that a dog may stop obeying a command if it sees that another dog is getting a better deal.” Dogs in the study (as dogs always are) were happy to “shake paws” all day long for absolutely no reward. That is, until the researchers started giving one dog a treat when he shook paws. The remaining dogs took longer and longer to respond to the command, and eventually stopped responding at all.

This followed a 2003 study in which monkeys exchanged rocks for a cucumber treat. The monkeys became insulted when some of them started getting better treats (highly coveted grapes) instead of the cucumbers. “The one who got cucumber became very agitated, threw out the food, threw out the rock that we exchanged with them, and at some point just stopped performing,” said one of the researchers.

I can relate. Workplace humans throw similar tantrums when they perceive unfairness, whether it’s over salary or perks, office location, or the length of their walk from the parking lot. In management, the Equity Theory says that individuals judge the fairness of their treatment based on how others like them are treated. Individual temperaments and upbringing will also make a difference in how strong a person’s response will be to perceived unfairness.

If you have strong reactions to what you see as unfair behavior or treatment, author Bruce Weinstein suggests that lashing out may not be the best response. Here are his suggestions for an ethically intelligent way to handle injustice.

  1. Realize that the other party is to blame, not you. You don’t deserve to be (insulted, discriminated against, or ignored) but it’s not your fault. In fact, it may not even be about you; it may not be intended personally at all.
  2. Refuse to let the situation get the best of you. Rage is not a good look on anyone, and if you can remain calm in the face of injustice, you will gain respect and a reputation for rising above petty issues.
  3. Respond in a way that brings out the best in you. You can choose from a number of classy responses: icy politeness, gentle forgiveness,  or loving reprimand (“I’m sure you didn’t intend to play favorites; you’re a much better manager than that.”)

Being able to assume goodwill when possible will help keep you from overreacting. Nothing is more embarrassing than overreacting to a perceived slight and then having to backtrack. Hanlon’s Razor cites: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It’s this philosophy that has allowed me to remain, well, philosophical, when life seems unfair.

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