Can you be fair and treat people as individuals?

Fairness. It’s important. We all want the right to the same opportunities at work, no matter where we’re from or who we are. By its very nature, being fair to everyone often means all rules are applied to all people in the same way, regardless of the situation. But can the pursuit of fairness lead us to standardise work to the point where people are no longer treated as individuals?

As an example, imagine a company where all employees receive a personal training budget of £250 per year for their learning and development. The digital marketing executive finds an online course that covers the latest developments in SEO, and it fits into the budget, no problem. But the customer service officer who wants to improve their presenting skills in order to become an account manager needs a face-to-face course which exceeds the budget. Having the same budget for everyone might seem fair, but does it give everyone an equal chance to develop, and does it treat them as individuals? Does it really bring out what they’ve got to offer, or are we putting those people into boxes?

  • Hi Lizzie

    Have to observe that in my book being 'fair' to employees does not always or necessarily involve treating them all exactly the same: it's becoming a bit of an urban myth to think that employers have to be 'fair'

    Employment law protects employees against being discriminated-against on account of certain precisely-defined characteristics but in a sense the law relating eg to 'reasonable adjustments' runs completely counter to the notion of treating everyone exactly the same.

    There is in reality no general duty for employers to treat their staff 'fairly' - whatever that means. But it certainly IMHO has nothing much to do with treating them all uniformly.

    Rather, it has everything to do with acting reasonably and not undermining the inherent trust and confidence of the employer-employee relationship, but many employers (and indeed employees) often choose not to do so - but that's life, and whatever life is, it ain't very fair!!

  • In reply to David:

    Thanks David,

    I think you make a really good point - that treating people fairly doesn't always mean treating everybody the same. I'm working on an article with some really interesting speakers at the moment - one of whom considers the culture of flexibility we enjoy as consumers, and whether this is something that could be translated into the workplace. I'll post a link up here when it's finished and online; I think it's a really different way of looking at how we do work - hopefully you'll find it as thought-provoking as I did!

  • In reply to Lizzie O'Brien:

    I rather agree with t'other David (new photo too!) Being fair is definitely not treating everyone identically.

    You give the example in your 1st post about everyone given the same amount of dosh. That in itself is not necessarily fair for reasons you point out.

    Treating people equally is also not fair. Expecting everyone to behave to the same standards when, for example, not everyone has the same ability or education means those who have less ability are punished more regularly than the better able. In fact, treating people as though they are all out of the same box, as identi-kit clones is definitely not being fair.

    Treating everyone the same is what happens in many bureaucratic organisations.
  • Part of the issue is with HR here - too many HR people think far too narrowly and worship at the twin gods of precedent and policy. Both can be false gods and stifle real creative people management.

    Good line managers (who are the people who are closest to individuals ) should know their employees best and should be empowered to manage them within broad guidelines and reward frameworks. However all too often we seek to impose tighter and tighter policy restrictions that take away the ability to offer a unique solution that fits the individual. Then we wonder why managers cant/wont manage.

    HR all to often has set itself up as the gatekeeper / doorman who interpret the need to protect the business by restricting the opportunity to treat people as individuals. If we allow any freedom its only at the very highest levels in an organisation, allowing one rule for "us" and another for "them". Whereas HR should be the facilitator and in some ways the fixer, the team that help create the ambience and environment for others to thrive in.

    Its one of the reasons (IMO) that some small organisations (often without formal HR) are dynamic thriving entities where individuals really are treated individually by the owner / operators. Because no one has told them they cant!. Sure its "easier" when you have 10 employees rather than 10,000 but that's partly because we seek to institutional the wrong things.

    Organisations can stay legal, honest and decent and still allow a far great personalised and individual approach than we do now. Its a shame that as a profession we haven't really stepped up to the mark on this one yet
  • Although this cartoon is a little on the trite side (after all, there's a very reasonable commercial argument for the existence of the fence in the first place, and you could say it should be a lot higher, because that's another kind of equality), it does do a pretty good job of illustrating the different approaches to social justice.

    It also makes the idea of "removing the fence" look a lot easier than it is in reality.

  • In reply to Lizzie O'Brien:

    I quite like this image as a simple way of illustrating how treating people equally and treating people fairly are absolutely not the same thing:

  • In reply to Owen:

    And of course the standard parlance of "Equal Opps" is superficially very  misleading, smacking as it does of Equality whereas it really means / ought to mean providing everyone  *equitably*  with ( if needs be varying / different ) means and opportunities to watch the game or whatever

  • ACAS have produced their 7 levers for productivity one of which is fairness. It is worth reading
  • I forgot to mention that the CIPD also has some good stuff on fairness.
    I often say that I would rather be fair than consistent.
    So many people think fairness means consistency and whilst consistency may be a factor in fairness it is just a part of the picture.
  • In reply to Keith:

    The issue is also related to the cost management HR administration aproach and the value creation role of strategic HR management: smaller companies cannot afford the luxury of denominator managers not contributing to top line growth so favour numerator managers with their strategic roles.
  • David's reply below is excellent; fundamentally fairness is about equality of opportunity rather than equality of output. I would say a company is being pretty generous offering money at all and individuals should be prioritising their own IDPs and investment of cash to develop where they wish.
  • Hi all,

    I though some of you might be interested in a new blog written by our People and Strategy Director, Laura Harrison. In response to Mike Ashley's appearance in front of MPs on the business, innovation and skills committee earlier on this week, Laura asks the question 'What can Sports Direct teach us about fairness and corporate culture?'

  • In reply to Lizzie O'Brien:


    Hopefully this is an engaging and welcoming platform for debates as well as questions. I found your initial post interesting and you had some varied and thought provoking responses. I assumed this would form part of a debate that you would return to and actively engage in.

    I am a little disappointed that your only return after the first day was not to respond or comment on the debate that members have had but to sign post another CIPD blog. It may well just be me but it doesn't seem like engaging with the membership debate but more a editorial stance.

    Think it would be great if more people at the CIPD actually engaged in some of the debates on here and I am sure they would find them valuable.

  • In reply to Keith:


    Friendly feedback is always welcome - it helps us make sure we're giving you the experience you want to get out of this community! Discussion and debate are welcome :)

    I'm really glad you found the initial post stimulating; we've been doing a lot of work here at the CIPD on developing principles for the profession, and are keen to explore some of the key themes (such as fairness) with our members here on the community platforms. I've stayed out of it a bit too much for fear of interrupting the member-to-member flow - for which I am now very sorry indeed! I popped that blog up because it seemed to link in so well with some of the ideas on fairness and culture ('one rule for us and another for them').

    Something I picked up on in your post was the idea of how smaller companies find it easier to manage people as individuals, because large organisations are institutionalising the wrong things. This reminded me of a very recent talk I watched by Margaret Heffernan where she explored the over-standardisation of education and work, and how processes, bureaucracy and hierarchy create a culture of fear that basically kills ideas and creativity. I wonder if - linking it to what you said - treating people the same, and not like individuals, is also a contributing factor in that end result?

    Speaking of Margaret Heffernan - has anyone watched her TED talk on daring to disagree - it's amazing. It talks about how we need to have people at work who are unafraid to speak up, who are happy to challenge things that they don't agree with. (I suppose a bit like you, Keith! :) )

  • In reply to Lizzie O'Brien:

    Just to comment on your last para Lizzie - not familiar in any way with the work of this person, but would have thought that this phenomenon has ever been the case and if that's all she has to say it's rather stating the obvious.
    For example as long ago as around 25 years ago our organisation had an ultra-challenging employee who was a big thorn in the flesh of everyone from the CEO down (and me especially) - but the CEO was a very very tough but very astute individual, who put up with the guy with uncharacteristic patience and tolerance and often said privately to me that 'awkward' employees who constantly challenged things were to be greatly valued - even cherished (up to a point...) - because they tended to be far brighter and more perceptive and valuable to managers than their conformist colleagues.