Merge's Blog

(Perceived) fairness is important if you are a leader

Fairness. Wanting to be treated fairly is a primal instinct. A concept worth considering if you are a leader. Watch this very illustrative video of an experiment conducted by Frans de Waal, famed Dutch primatologist and ethologist. This particular experiment observed how a Capuchin monkey behaved when she was exposed to what she perceived as unfairness. If nothing else, it’s highly entertaining and you’ll likely laugh out loud.

Funny and enlightening, isn’t it? Given that human beings are primates, this certainly offers serious food for thought as to how employees might feel when they perceive that they are being treated unfairly compared to their peers.

Every good leader I know understands the importance of treating employees fairly. But the challenge lies in determining what “fair” means. Does fairness mean “equal” treatment (both monkeys receive grapes), as demonstrated in this video? I don’t believe so, primarily because trying to treat employees “equally” is close to impossible; there are just far too many variables that differentiate individual employees. But I have always told leaders that fairness should mean “equivalent”. And by that I mean offering something of equal value to different employees. So in this case, maybe the first monkey would have been satisfied getting something that was as delicious as grapes, such as apples perhaps. If this monkey viewed both to be evenly delicious, then grapes and apples would have been “equivalent”, so of equal value. Clearly though, grapes and cucumbers were not!

So, what does that mean for us as leaders? I say that fairness means that we must be equivalent, but not equal. What do you think? Do you agree with me? What situations have you observed where the unfairness was blatant, and what did it do to employee morale? Please add your thoughts below.


  • 13 people in the department I was caught on my cell phone 2.5 years ago and given a warning. Husband died 2 years ago and son did not take it well. I was caught on my cell phone. I was rempremanded and written up and if caught again would lose my job. I had been with the company for 30 years. The younger people come into the department and they are on their cell phones yet they are not told to either put away, nor are they written up, because they are still here and still on their phone. This has gone on for over a year now.

    Is this fair…. don’t think so. they are not even supposed to be on your desk.

    Same with dress code. No bare shoulders, see through tops, yoga pants or tights under a top. Yet… the ones that have been here the longest are told to go home and change and the young gals hired within the past 3 years in the other departments are allowed to wear this type of clothing. Fair?????

  • Cindy, thanks for sharing your personal experience. I’ve got to agree with you … it certainly doesn’t sound fair! Your situation is a prime example of why leaders need to exercise flexibility in judgment — being equivalent allows leaders to take the situational circumstances into account rather than just trying to police by the letter of the law.


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