What is Fair?

Photo by Ken Tomita from Pexels

Many summers ago, I was working in the only real legal job I ever had. I was serving as a law clerk with a small outpost of a large legal firm. The lawyers were part of the labor and employment law of this firm. I hadn’t yet taken those courses though they proved to be two of my favorites in part because the body of law just made sense. One of my tasks that summer was to compile data for a lawsuit involving the hiring, firing, and promotion practices of our client. I combed through the data and recorded it on a large ledger sheet (remember, many summers ago). I’d make a hash mark for each person hired, fired or promoted based on ethnicity (there were no women in this manufacturing firm). The goal was to be able to discern whether or not there was a pattern or practice of discrimination in each of these decisions made by this company.

I was reminded of this work today as I spent time with a group of faculty as we discussed the standards for promotion for faculty. By the end of the day, we had developed a clear set of standards regarding promotion from assistant to associate and from associate to full professor. It’s not that this college didn’t have them, but rather that they needed to be updated as the college is changing its standards regarding research and scholarship. Once these are finalized and shared, faculty in the college will have clear guidance on what they need to do to be considered for promotion and tenure. And that’s only fair, isn’t it?

Now that’s not at all unusual, but it made me realize something. At least in the places I’ve worked, we didn’t do anything comparable in the administrative world or in most other organizations I know. We have criteria, minimum standards to hire staff, but we don’t do a very good job of teaching people how to be successful let alone provide clear guidelines. When we hire someone as a Program Coordinator I, do we even know what they need to accomplish to be considered for promotion to Program Coordinator II? And if we don’t know the criteria, how will the person in the position?

Which brings me to the question of fairness. All those summers ago, there could have been all sorts of reasons why the people represented by those hash marks had been promoted or not, had been hired or fired, but without clarity about the criteria it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for that company to show they made those decisions based on legal or fair criteria.

One of the issues in many organizations is that much of what is needed to be successful is unwritten. Staff members often have to figure out on their own how to dress, how to participate in professional development, or what additional education might be needed to be eligible for higher level positions. It seems the least we could do is define and share what it takes to be promoted to the next level. We need to make sure people understand what kinds of experiences they need to be able to be considered for a director position or above.

And if our HR operations aren’t doing as well as they should in defining and sharing this kind of information, we need to be ready to teach our staff members how to be prepared for promotion. It seems only fair, doesn’t it? After all, part of the job of a leader is to help others find their way into leadership. That’s not simply fair. That’s important.

Take care,


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