Why Fairness Matters
People make the School of Informatics. Whether academic, professional services, or student, without people teaching and research would halt. And people are at their best when they feel they belong in the School’s culture. At the root of an inclusive culture lies fairness, which brings out the best in people. Fairness matters, as any child knows instinctively. Because this is so obvious, it can be hard to explain. Social and economic research gives two main practical reasons why we care:
- First, great ideas can come from anywhere. Working with people from different backgrounds and ways of thinking makes us better. Whether it is scientific debate, improving administrative processes, or tutorial discussions, variety of experience and perspective brings more creative solutions.
- Second, people are very sensitive to inequality and unfairness. We can detect it instantly. Unfairness increases conflict and tension. When we experience too much of it we tune out, either by physically leaving or by mentally stopping productivity, sometimes involuntarily. Nobody likes conflict. On the upside, a fair culture is not just one in which people genuinely want to work and study. It also nourishes a good reputation and attracts more good things.
So, for everybody to contribute their skills, talents, and ideas, to the benefit of all, fairness matters. Challenging conventions, questioning existing ways of thinking, and sometimes robust debate, only work well when people feel confident that their views will be heard fairly. Not being constrained by what other people think boosts creativity.
Time and again research shows that in most successful teams people trust and respect each other, which allows them to take risks and be vulnerable. Increasing fairness is good for everybody. People who feel fairly treated enjoy themselves more, are more likely to help colleagues, and are more willing to persist in difficult times. Here is a very utilitarian take from Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman:
Workers are people. Raising the minimum wage makes jobs better; it doesn’t seem to make them scarcer. How is that possible? Workers are not, in fact, commodities. A bushel of soybeans doesn’t care how much you paid for it; but decently paid workers tend to do a better job.
To be fair, you don’t have to go all the way to egalitarianism, where everybody shares efforts and results equally. Some people are naturally better at some things than others, and that diversity should be used to the advantage of the whole community. We want to work with the best colleagues, even if they cannot take credit completely for their talent and effort. But the possibility and support to improve yourself should be open to everyone. People are more prepared to accept unfair outcomes if they feel that the process that led to them was fair. But we balk at unfair process even when it leads to fair outcomes.
Fairness is linked to responsibility and accountability, especially when it comes to diversity. Most of us tend to prefer the familiar. Leaning into differences between us is easier said than done. But research supports the idea that diversity in our backgrounds and beliefs translates into diversity in our ways of thinking.
Fairness matters. Diversity has practical benefits. So be fair, overcome unfamiliarity, and help your fellow people get the best out of themselves to the benefit of yourself and our entire School.
- P. Krugman, Power and paychecks, New York Times, 2015
- T. Limberg, L. Van der Heydan, Why Fairness Matters, International Commerce Review 7:92-102, 2007
- C. Leineweber, C. Eib, P. Peristera, C. Bernhard-Oettel, The influence of and change in procedural justice on self-rated health trajectories, Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health 42:320-328, 2016
- K. Diekmann, H. Sondak, Z. Barsness, Does fairness matter more to some than to others?, Social Justice Research, 20:161-180, 2007
- J. Rawls, Principle of Egalitarianism, 1999
- B. Skyrms, Evolutionary game theory, 2014