Fair Is Fair


“They play favorites.” “They made their mind up before they started.” “They didn’t earn it.” “They don’t deserve it.” “It’s a popularity contest.” “They have more than me.” And the list goes on and on. So what’s fair, and how is fairness determined?

Fairness affects everything we do. It shapes our judgment, impacts our credibility, affects our ability to trust, and influences our loyalty and motivation. It can bolster or damage a career, strengthen or torpedo a relationship, and advance or ruin a leader’s authority. In fact, fairness is so important, it’s a crucial element of a functioning democracy. And yet some people complain that things aren’t fair.

What Makes a Person Fair?

Rational. Fair-minded people employ clear and sensible thinking. They examine both sides of an issue before forming an opinion. Fair-minded people make decisions based on hard evidence and reason rather than emotion; they know the whole story rather than just some of the facts.

Objective. Fair-minded people make impartial judgments, free from personal bias. They disclose any bias before offering an opinion.

Open-minded. Fair-minded people are tolerant and non-discriminating, accepting of the views of others. Fair-minded people are true to their own beliefs without forcing them on others. As Oscar Wilde said, “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

Reasonable. Fair-minded people challenge others by setting high, yet realistic, expectations. They ask of others only what they’re willing to do themselves. Furthermore, fair-minded people pay a fair day’s wage for an honest day’s work.

Even-handed. Fair-minded people give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed devoid of favoritism. They treat bosses and subordinates with the same level of respect. Furthermore, fair-minded people discourage any real or perceived favoritism that may result from conducting business with friends or acquaintances.

Sound judgment. Fair-minded people reward folks based on the value they provide rather than on the basis of subjective assessment.

Rule abiding. Fair-minded people follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. They do what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient. Fair-minded people never twist rules for personal gain.

Contributor. Fair-minded people make a concerted effort to pull their own weight rather than living off the hard work of others. They “get in the game” rather than criticizing from the sidelines.

Deserving. Fair-minded people do not request special favors or accept unearned rewards. Furthermore, fair-minded people wait their turn in line rather than pushing their way to the front.

Sound leadership. Fair-minded people earn the respect of their colleagues through their expertise, personal integrity, and ability to foster trust rather than demanding it. When fair-minded people are in positions of power, they “ do right” by people and go out of their way to serve as exemplary role models. Furthermore, fair-minded people create a win-win environment. They discourage situations in which people outmaneuver one another to gain the upper hand. They avoid zero-sum games in which one-person’s win translates into another person’s loss.

Selfless. Fair-minded people are empathetic, willing to walk in another person’s shoes before making a judgment. Furthermore, as fair-minded people climb the ladder of success, they lift up others and are genuinely happy for their success.

Sometimes Fairness Is a Matter of Perspective

The characteristics of fairness aren’t always clearly defined. In fact, they are a source of continual debate and can even be polarizing at times. You be the judge:

  • Should exceptional performers be rewarded the same as underachievers?
  • Should folks who work their butts off receive the same recognition as couch potatoes who watch?
  • Should folks who assume significant risk in order to realize their dreams receive the same reward as those who pay lip service?
  • Should some people be required to follow rules and others be given a pass?
  • Should people who demand that others give of themselves be required to give equally of themselves?

Of course, ideologues believe that only their notion of fairness is correct. But is it fair for them to force their will on others? And so the debate continues . . .

Let’s Be Fair

Fairness is about doing what’s right. Period. Many people believe that being fair only affects others. The fact is, fairness –– or the lack of it –– says a lot about the giver even while it impacts the receiver. If we want to be effective and respected, it’s essential that we behave fairly and provide an equal opportunity for others to succeed. Furthermore, in a civilized society, it is our responsibility to encourage others to do the same.

The truth is, everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed, but then it is each individual’s responsibility to capitalize on that opportunity. When equal opportunity is the norm, we are personally responsible for our destiny.

Hard work builds character, contributes to success, and promotes happiness. When we are rewarded for just showing up rather than for earning our way, it reduces confidence, promotes dependency, and robs us of our personal dignity. At the end of the day, it’s our choice whether we’re willing to make the commitment to succeed. As Andrew Carnegie said, “You cannot push anyone up the ladder unless he is willing to climb.” Seems fair to me.

What Do You Think Is Fair?

Additional Reading:
Courage: No Guts No Glory
Honesty: The Plain and Simple Truth
Humility: Don’t Let Success Go to Your Head

If you like this article, subscribe to our blog so that you don’t miss a single post. Get future posts by RSS feed, email or Facebook. It’s FREE. Click your favorite option (top right).


  1. Lolly Daskal says

    Life is not always fair -but we must be a person who leads with fairness.

    Great and important post and as you said..

    “Fairness affects everything we do. It shapes our judgment, impacts our credibility, affects our ability to trust, and influences our loyalty and motivation.”

    Fairness is basically part of all you do.

    Thanks for reminding us of the basics!


    • frank sonnenberg says

      Hi Lolly

      I agree. First we must “be a person who leads with fairness” and then encourage others to do the same.

      In my mind a leader may hold a title, but if her or she doesn’t have the credibility, respect or trust of his or her followers he or she will not succeed. Some people demand respect because of their age, wealth or position. The truth is, no one can demand or buy respect.–– it is earned. Fairness is key.



  2. Anita Stout says

    Fair is an interesting topic. Having raised 6 children I heard the worlds “that’s not fair” more times than I can count. I finally had to settle on this definition.
    Fair isn’t everyone gets the same. Fair is everyone gets what they need. I also taught my children not to assume that the world is a fair place and that everything that happens will seem fair. The best they could do was to treat others fairly and realize that by doing so they will be making their own impact.

    I enjoyed this post a lot. It brought back a lot of funny memories of “fair feuds.”

    • frank sonnenberg says

      Hi Anita

      I can only imagine the “fair feuds” of your six children. What surprises me is that it brought you a smile :-) Your definition of fair is interesting, “Fair isn’t everyone gets the same. Fair is everyone gets what they need.” Thanks for sharing.



  3. Melanie Greenberg, PhD says

    This is an important and thought-provoking article. Our brains may be wired for fairness, such that perceptions of injustice can compound the emotional pain of losing out. When employees perceive favoritism, inequity of rewards and punishments, that someone is allowed to have an unfair advantage, or that rewards are not performance-based, they typically withdraw effort and loyalty. This has damaging affects on the whole enterprise. On the other hand, judgments about fairness are subjective. When a group is systematically disadvantaged or faces discrimination, is it fair to give them some extra help in reaching the expected standard or to lower the criterion for entry?

    • frank sonnenberg says

      Hi Melanie

      I agree. “When employees perceive favoritism, inequity of rewards and punishments, that someone is allowed to have an unfair advantage, or that rewards are not performance-based, they typically withdraw effort and loyalty. This has damaging affects on the whole enterprise.”

      As a great nation we must provide equal opportunity for all –– where no group is disadvantaged or discriminated upon. Furthermore, we are compassionate people. We should make every effort to help the downtrodden get back on their feet, but we shouldn’t absolve them of their personal responsibility to secure a better future for themselves and their families. Compassion shouldn’t be measured by the size of a handout but by our ability to provide opportunity to reduce dependency, enabling people to become self-sufficient and helping them to realize their dreams.

      Have a wonderful day!



    • frank sonnenberg says

      Hi Danny

      I’m glad you like the post. I hope to see you back soon.



  4. Carol Anderson says

    Great thoughts, Frank. It is interesting to me….the Myers Briggs type indicator provides a little insight into fairness that is always an “ah ha” for folks. Those with a thinking preference see fairness as treating everyone equally. Those with a feeling preference see fairness is treating everyone as an individual.

    In my experience, this is the one conflict that is most difficult to resolve because it taps into deep emotions and beliefs. I often think that the divisions we are seeing in the country today have some basis in this difference.

    • frank sonnenberg says

      Hi Carol

      I understand this is a polarizing issue. I believe that everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed, but then it’s each individual’s responsibility to capitalize on that opportunity. We must encourage people to have a strong family structure and instill solid values, obtain a world-class education, and possess a powerful work ethic needed to succeed.



  5. August Turak says

    Great stuff as usual Dr. Sonnenberg. However I have spent a fair (no pun intended!) amount of time wondering if any of us would really want to live in a world that was always fair. What do you think? I’ll be sharing this one for sure. Keep up the great work. Augie

    • frank sonnenberg says

      Hi Augie

      I read your comment last night. It got me thinking. Would I want to live in a world that was always fair? Of course. Wouldn’t everyone? I couldn’t come up with one reason otherwise. In my mind, the only way someone would draw a different conclusion was if they defined fairness differently than myself. I’d love to hear the other side of this.



  6. Yogini says

    This is in continuation to what August Turak said, Would we want to live in a world that was always fair?
    It would definitely be a dream world, a perfect world, where everything is fair. But , what would be the potential for the continual evolution of the human mind and spirit, if it doesn’t face challenges? Aren’t the unfair situations we meet on a daily basis, slowly building up and strengthening our value systems? Aren’t these unfair situations , assessing our responses , whereby we gain confidence to tackle similar situations that come up later, with the learning had from the former?
    Would we like to each chocolate and goodies every other day? Or would we be happy to substantiate the goodies with wholesome food, which the tongue might not relish, but boosts our health systems?

    • Frank Sonnenberg says

      Hi Yogini

      I hear what you’re saying…unfairness in the world actually helps to strengthen our value system. It’s similar to the argument that death makes life meaningful.

      The truth is, I don’t think there’s any need to be concerned about a world that’s perfectly fair. So, I will continue to be a strong advocate for fairness. And, if I’m wrong (and the world becomes fair) we’ll still find ways to make out lives difficult.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.



  7. Kyle High says

    A great post with logical points.

    Fairness does not mean the same as equality.

    This is objective, not subjective, when you see things at work happen like below:

    • A Leader who favors an employee who can sweet talk and bribe her, and that leader gives that employee lighter work and grants her all the requests, when she does the opposite to another employee who is not like the one described as above

    • An Employee who always sweet talks and bribes the management and doctor, so she could get the doctor’s note, and get away with heavy work and have lots of sick leaves

    Such leader and employee are cheaters and corrupted to their colleagues/co-workers and the company.

    Fair is fair. It means equal pay for equal work; and when one is at work, s/he should really work for what s/he gets pay for

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *