Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 30, 2023
by Neil Senturia
recently asked readers to weigh in on my column — subject line: My Thoughts. You know, let the old man have a piece of your mind, tell him exactly what you think. Well, today I want to share a submission on a fascinating topic — what is fair.
Dennis B writes:
“I think little kids get it right. When there is a disagreement, they often say ‘that isn’t fair.’ They seem to have an internal barometer. We adults tend to use terms like ‘right,’ ‘legal’ ‘authorized,’ etc. I explore my own biases, and I ask what is the difference between when it is me and when it is somebody else. Seems like we adults might be well-served to follow the example of little kids who just seem to know when it is fair and when it isn’t.”
Fair is one of those concepts like pornography. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it best — “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
After reading a newspaper account of a particular behavior or event outcome, it is easy for me to turn to my bride and howl that the outcome is outrageous. I am an adult and I know what is fair and what isn’t. Says who?
I have a well-defined sense of equity — and if you disagree with me, you can speak to my lawyer. Really?
It appears that in 2023, more and more, “fair” is only in the eye of the beholder. What happened to our inner child voice? Studies show that children as early as 12 months of age intuit the proper behavior, particularly when the “spoils” are disproportionate.
The classic experiment is as follows. One child is given four candies, the other child is given one. The four-candy child is the “decider” — if she accepts the allocation as proposed, then it stays four-one. But if the decider child rejects the allocation as offered, then both children get nothing, no candy for either.
“Children are willing to sacrifice their own rewards to prevent someone else from getting the short end of the stick,” writes Katherine McAuliffe and Peter Blake, both professors at Boston College, in a study published in Scientific American.
How wonderfully ironic that the studies show that children “get it” at a very early age, and it seems to guide their inherent behavior. By contrast, we adults have created justice institutions to “make sure fairness prevails.”
Fair behavior seems to have fallen on deaf ears at American Airlines, Aurora Expeditions and Trip Mate.
There is a fantastic story in the New York Times by Seth Kugel, the travel writer. It is long and detailed, but the bottom line is that the airline, the cruise operator and the insurance carrier went out of their way to treat a customer very badly. It was clear that their behavior was not “fair.” After a long battle, the wronged woman finally got back her refund ($17,000, not exactly chump change).
And of course, the publicity the three companies all received cost them far more than the refund multiple times over. But let me point out that “fair” is easiest to see when it does not directly affect you. Still, it seems fair to ask “why not do the right thing in the first place?”
Fairness is the particular obligation of a leader. When I negotiate with an engineer, offering him a salary and stock options, I have the complete upper hand in the stock aspect. I know the cap table and all the financials, so if I say 5,000 options, that number is meaningless to the potential hire, unless the leader gives context.
In other words, the leader needs to negotiate on behalf of the employee, not against them. When a leader has an unfair advantage, he/she needs to bend over backward to make the prospective compensation package “fair.”
Now one last conundrum. A friend of mine has a young son in college. He is part of a group project. In his opinion he did 80 percent of the work, the team gets an A on the project, and the other three members of the team benefit from this one man’s significant effort. Is that fair?
“Life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all,” — William Goldman, “The Princess Bride.”
Rule No. 747: If I cut the cards, then you pick.