Fairness is simple. Bring culture into it and bedevil everything.

Fundamental need for fairness is confounded by our cultural expression of it.

<4230 words>  This is NOT A BLOG. It is a conference paper that I decided to make available via my blog.  The PPT (available on LinkedIn) is on a safari theme, so these giraffes suggest we take the long view of where our need for fairness comes from.



The challenge to HR: 

Improving workplace fairness by stepping back and taking it all in.

Background paper to a presentation given at the Atlantic Universities and Colleges Human Resources Association (AUCHRA) Conference in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 22 October, 2015

Presenter/author:  Delphine du Toit.    Mediator/Coach/Facilitator.

Fairness is the default position


Fairness is a baseline requirement for humans, yet it feels like the harder we try the more difficult it is to achieve.  The difficulty with being universally fair is that it is a balancing act.   No-one discusses ‘fairness’, generally speaking, unless someone has alleged that something has been unfair.  The withdrawal of fairness is a bit like the withdrawal of oxygen: you don’t know you have it until it is taken away.

Unfairness – perceived or real – is a great source of conflict in the workplace.  Sometimes it bursts forth in a flurry of accusations; more often it festers in someone’s heart and head, gradually poisoning their feelings about the workplace; being at work; co-workers; management, which then manifests itself in reduction of effort; sloppy work; argumentative responses to requests; squabbling; gossiping; and, in more extreme cases, in absenteeism or overt sabotage.


It is in our nature.  It is instinctual. It is hardwired in our brains. We share our desire for fairness with other primates and even with elephants, although we believe that there is greater depth to our expression of fairness because we are so much more complex than even our closest cousins, the chimps. We have so many cultural variations to contend with, and we co-exist simultaneously with many cultures, some of them our own, some of which we have modified to suit our personalities and experience.

Evolutionary researchers now typically talk about the evolutionary purpose of the human traits that all members of our species have in common, regardless of the age in which we live or did live; what country we grew up in; our gender; our nation’s history; our gender; our generation; or our culture.  We have come to admit that our amygdala – the so-called ‘primitive brain’ provides us with common instincts, which include many common likes/dislikes.  There are things we can’t explain, but we know they’re there. Like, for example, the fear of spiders or snakes or our love affair with sweetness.

Physiologically we haven’t changed much in the past 1 million years.  That means our genes are pretty intact too.  Evolutionary psychologists say that our fundamental perceptual, emotional and behavioural traits are hardly changed from what they were in Paleolithic times (a million and more years ago).  We fear now what we feared then. We seek the same basic satisfactions.

Driven by our passion for survival and fear of personal extinction in a hostile world, we learned more than a million years ago that there is safety in numbers.  We discovered the advantages of working and living together, and we’ve been refining it ever since.  Working together means sharing space and resources and managing relationships with others. It also means disagreement about distribution of resources, leadership roles, and ways in which to mediate conflicts. So, naturally we had to start creating rules and in creating rules we were almost immediately confronted by the human imperative or fairness.  Some of the human fundamentals[1] that form the foundation for this rule-creation activity among pre-historic up to post-modern tribes and nations are elements like those listed below:

Human Fundamentals that inform the need for justice and fairness

  • Abstraction in speech and thought
  • Ambivalence
  • Anticipation
  • Attachment
  • Beliefs about fortune and misfortune
  • Choice making
  • Classification
  • Coalitions
  • Collective identities
  • Conflict, including mediation of
  • Conjectural reasoning
  • Co-operation
  • Corporate (perpetual) statuses
  • Cultural variability
  • Culture/nature distinction
  • Decision-making
  • Distinguishing right and wrong
  • Division of labour
  • Economic inequalities
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Family
  • Fears (and ability to overcome some)
  • Future (attempts to predict)
  • Hope
  • Identity (collective)
  • In-group distinguished from out-groups
  • Institutions
  • Insulting
  • Intention
  • Interpolation
  • Interpreting behaviour
  • Language employed to manipulate others
  • Language employed to misinform/mislead others
  • Logical notions of ‘and’; ‘equivalent’; ‘opposite’; part/whole
  • Males dominate public/political realm
  • Manipulate social relations
  • Materialism
  • Moral sentiments
  • Narrative
  • Overestimating objectivity of thought
  • Pain
  • Past/present/future
  • Planning
  • Possessive
  • Precedents (e.g. that’s how the zebra got its stripes)
  • Prestige inequalities
  • Pride
  • Private inner life
  • Promise
  • Property
  • Psychological defense mechanisms
  • Reciprocity
  • Redress of wrongs
  • Resistance to abuse of power/dominance
  • Risk taking
  • Rituals
  • Role and personality
  • Sanctions
  • Self-control
  • Self-image
  • ‘Self’ distinguished from other
  • Self as neither wholly passive nor wholly autonomous
  • Self is responsible
  • Shame
  • Stinginess (disapproval of)
  • Social structure
  • Socialization
  • Special speech for special occasions
  • Statuses and roles
  • Symbolism
  • Symbolic speech
  • Taboos
  • Territoriality
  • Time
  • Triangular awareness (assessing relationship among the self and two other people)
  • True and false distinguished
  • Turn-taking
  • World view

Once we understand that there are such human fundamentals common to ALL members of our species, regardless of their status, country of origin, culture and all the other factors that differentiate us, including personality, and that they have their origins in our biological urge to survive, we move a step closer to being able to discern common ground when addressing fairness and resolve conflict in a multi-cultural situation. (And we also know, now, that almost every situation is multi-cultural.)


Imagine the smartest ape of them all, Homo sapiens, in the world of the large animals of a million years ago: giant very hungry sabre-tooth cats, large and angry mammoths, even hungrier hyenas the size of a Smart car, giant bears and ground sloths, to name a few[2].   How were we to survive in such a world?  We did it by collaborating and co-operating.   We clubbed together and formed hunting parties and seed gathering groups and nurseries where the post-menopausal women looked after the kiddies, passing on their wisdom and traditions to the next generation. We believe they taught the next generation about the tribe’s culture: what is co-operation; respect; fairness; and what does it feel like to be included or excommunicated.  They built on their fundamental human needs in creating their own unique way IN THEIR CULTURE AND TRADITIONS, to entrench the belief and need for justice and fairness.

So what is culture then?  The Dutch social scientist, Geert Hofstede talks about culture as ‘software of the mind’.  From the beginning of human life we learn certain patterns of thinking, feeling and acting, from our own families and communities.  We are programmed into the culture of our environment: that is our first level of culture – the foundation.  We learn to greet kin differently from strangers; we eat with our hands, sticks or metal tools, as our culture dictates and as our mothers patiently teach us.  All these habits bind the community together – you recognise your own by its rituals and mannerisms.  We learn culture – it is not innate as our human nature, which distinguishes us from other primates, is.

 ‘Culture consists of the unwritten rules of the social game[3].’

And so then, imagine that isolated groupings of primitive peoples work out the rules of being together, within their little communities: the fundamental needs are there, but the rules they work out are shaped by the personalities and history of the creators of those rules, and by the environments in which they find themselves.  Before you know it, the entire planet has been conquered by our species, and we have a Tower of Babel full of different cultures, languages, values to give expression to who we are, and to resolve disputes about fairness.

As long as such groups remain in isolation, the disputes remain internal to the group – everyone understands the rules of the game and generally there is acceptance of determination of fairness. (Except, of course, when you factor personalities into the equation: then you find the adjudication task more difficult, but at least everyone’s working according to the same set of principles and rules.)

Add human migration and there we have it: conflict, not about the fundamentals, but about how we pursue them and how we give expression to our needs and interests.   You refuse to make eye contact; I think you’re rude.  I attempt to kiss you on both cheeks, you slap my face.  You’re naked, covered in mud and animal skins, celebrating the winter solstice in the way that you have always done, and I’m in a suit of armour, mounted on horseback, and I appropriate your solstice and make it a celebration of my Saviour’s birthday and insist that you partake.  Do I think you’re intelligent or cultured?  I’m standing on the beaches of Newfoundland; searching the waters for signs of cod or whales.  You arrive in a tall ship with sails akimbo.  Do I welcome you or fight you? It depends on what my culture says about our relationship with out-groups.

Our cultural evolution has far outstripped our psychological and physiological evolution, they say. We have created sophisticated and adventurous ways of waging war and making peace on both a personal and a multi-national level. Yet, we are still locked into who we were a million years ago when it comes to what we need, fear, tolerate, and engage in.

It makes being fair in determining what’s fair and what’s not rather difficult.

General Rules in Determining Types of Culture

Remember, one of the human fundamentals is the propensity/ability to classify and to recognise cultural variability.  Hofstede, true to his human nature helps us in our understanding of culture without the poison of stereotyping.   He provides helpful descriptors of different types of cultures, all the while emphasizing that our personalities, as shaped by our DNA, experience, and inherent character, often cause us to be willing and able to change our relationship with our own culture, and even to change elements of our own culture as we adapt to changing circumstances.

The main pertinent cultural dimensions described by Hofstede are:

  • Power distance (which incorporates inequality)
  • Collectivism vs. individualism
  • Femininity vs. Masculinity
  • Long-term vs. short-term orientation.

He then created an index whereby he could classify 76 different countries in terms of their relative orientation (strong to weak) on each dimension.

Let’s look at power distance, for a moment.  This is where the degree of inequality in a society is measured.  We can come to understand better how different societies deal with inequalities.  The higher the score, the greater the power distance (the greater the inequality gap).  Examples of high power distance countries are Slovakia, Russia, Rumania, Serbia, Mexico, and Venezuela.  Lowest power distance countries include Germany, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries. One step up from them are Luxembourg, Canada (overall), the USA, the Netherlands and Australia.  And a step up from that sits, Japan Quebec and (white) South Africa.

What are the cultural dimensions we see in power distance?  Well, in high power distance countries the situation in families is that children are expected to be obedient to their parents.  There is a ranking in status among the kids from oldest to youngest. Independent behaviour is not encouraged.  It is characterised by a great deal of warmth and care for the younger ones and parents and grandparents are treated with a great deal of deference.    In the low power distance culture children are allowed/encouraged to take charge of their own affairs as soon as they can. They are allowed to contradict their elders. When they grow up such children start relating to their parents as friends. The family relationships are not as intense as in the high power distance cultures.

It looks like this in the workplace: In high power distance cultures the formal attitude and relationships with parents, especially fathers, and towards teachers, doctors, and all other figures of authority, is transferred to the boss.  There is an inherent inequality in the hierarchy. Power is concentrated in a small number of hands at the top of the pyramid.  There are great spreads in salary differentials between top and bottom.  ‘Relationships between subordinates and superiors in a large-power-distance organization are frequently loaded with emotions.’ It is considered FAIR for the boss to drive a bigger, fancier car and to have a designated parking spot.

In lower power-distance workplaces the hierarchical system reflects inequality in roles, and it is possible to move around from role to role. ‘Someone who today is my subordinate may tomorrow be my boss’.  High-skilled manual work has higher status than low-skill office work.  Superiors are expected to consult subordinates before making decisions.  Younger bosses are generally more appreciated than older ones.

How does one respond to an allegation of unfairness if someone from a Russian family, (high power distance), but now a Canadian citizen, is the manager; and someone Canadian by birth to Canadian parents (medium-to-low power distance) is alleging unfair favouritism towards someone recently arrived from Ireland (low power distance)?  How will that dissatisfaction be expressed by the Canadian; how will the Serbian-Canadian interpret it; and how will the Irish woman experience the final determination?

How does power distance play out in different genders and different generations of the same population?  It warrants more thought.

Power distance is just one element of culture that I’ve taken a quick look at for the purposes of this paper. It is gets far more complex than this, and yet, in HR we have to be informed; respectful; resourceful; consistent; equitable; and ensure that fairness prevails.  Isn’t it enough to make you want to change careers?  No need. All we have to do is find a way for HR to create a balance between the ways in which the different cultures perceive and exercise fairness. It can be done.  It’s not perfect yet, but progress is being made.


First, there’s the law:  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms sets out certain rights and freedoms, but it does not provide for an absolute guarantee of those rights. ‘Where there are competing interests in respect of Charter-protected rights, the Charter provides for ways of determining whether it is permissible to allow a right to be infringed in pursuit of other collective goals’[4].

If we take our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a baseline, it suggests when we look at reducing unfairness in the workplace it is a balancing act.  If we were a homogenous society, all the same age and gender, that might have been easy.  When we add the reality of the cultural diversity on our campuses into the mix it poses fresh challenges. We aren’t lawyers and we aren’t judges or arbitrators and yet we have to have a framework to guide us in giving fair advice on fairness.

The Charter encapsulates the essence of Canadian culture and values. It is our national default setting.  Anyone living or moving here is subject to its code, and the code says these rights aren’t absolute: it is a balancing act.  In the workplace HR has to ensure that the scales are calibrated correctly.

There are two main schools of thought on the concept ‘fairness’.

Social Science:  The view is that an outcome, action or interaction is fair because of how it is perceived. (Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.)

The challenge with this view is that we would forever be engaged in a balancing act, trying to be all things to all people, and probably exposing ourselves to inconsistencies and fresh allegations of discrimination or unfairness.

It contains within it the essential spirit of the Charter.

Ethical Philosophy:  This school favours the establishment of norms and minimum standards to guide an organization in its decision-making.

This is the realm of HR policy.  We advocate for certain rules that are adopted by senior management and turned into policy.  We then we set about administering the policy according to a strict procedure.  The existence of the policy and procedures are communicated to employees, and if relevant, to students and other stakeholders, and made available to those who inquire about them.

When someone complains about unfairness we then investigate according to our rules and procedures, sometimes bringing in a neutral outsider, and a determination is made about the allegation: was there unfairness, yes or no?  Win or lose?  We’re focused on our rules; do we pay attention to the perceptions regarding the original incident triggering the complaint and do we mind the perceptions about the final decision?  It is typically a winner-takes-all approach.

If you’re the complainant and you’re from a culture where the concept of fairness may be different, and the process of determining it also so, how do you understand or accept what’s happened?  How do you feel? What do you do next?

Are our HR policies less flexible than the Charter because ambiguity is so difficult to manage?

Organizational Justice:  ‘[It] is the conditions of employment that lead individuals to believe that they are being treated fairly or unfairly[5].’  Included in these conditions are:

  • The method used to make the decision(s);
  • How they are conveyed;
  • The effect of the decision(s) on relevant stakeholders.

We know that employees are highly conscious of and sensitive to the ongoing decisions made by their employers and constantly judge them for their fairness or otherwise.  Their judgements influence their attitudes and behaviour and their opinion of the integrity or even wisdom of the leadership of the organization. When such decisions affect someone directly and are felt to be unfair, it triggers ‘deviant’ workplace behaviour such as late-coming, absenteeism, lack of attention to quality, disengagement or what the literature calls CWB (counter-productive workplace behaviours).

We are all familiar with a range of approaches to re-engage disengaged employees, counsel employees on tardiness and absenteeism, and managing poor performance on the basis of clear short-term goals and close monitoring.   What we are less familiar with is the importance of the expectation of workplace fairness beyond the usual dimensions of grievances and complaints, and the way perceived unfairness triggers these types of behaviours.

The broader character and culture of the institution is monitored and judged by all employees and influences the level of employee engagement HR so diligently measures and reports on and works on fixing, with various levels of success.


Workplace fairness isn’t just about honouring internal recruitment procedures, investigating bullying or sexual harassment complaints.  Remember, we are hard-wired to expect fairness: it is our default setting. And so employees are constantly on the lookout – not necessarily consciously, but we’re all equipped with fairness radar and we’re quick to spot unfairness.  Each employee brings their own set of biases with them – biases in this instance meaning the rules of the various cultures they belong to that define the practice of fairness and therefore the resolution of unfairness.  (And we all belong to more than one culture, which makes life in HR more interesting.)

I offer four suggestions for your consideration:  is the status quo really ok?

  1. The starting point is to start the conversation. You know the old joke about ‘you can’t get there from here’?  So it is with gaining insight into something you used to see differently.   Unless you explore that insight by talking to others about it, seeing if you can help them shift their perspective too, nothing’s going to happen. The ‘aha!’ moment will never get translated into changing ‘the way we do things around here.’   It is challenging to expound on a new insight because you’re vulnerable to someone who appears smarter and can talk faster who might shoot holes in what you thought was a valuable new way of looking at what’s going on in your workplace.  How about exploring it by asking questions instead of making statements.

Something like

‘Is there a different way in which we could create a higher degree of trust and co-operation here?’

‘You know, I’ve been wondering: We have a value statement that says people are our greatest asset but meanwhile we have all these grievances and complaints which suggests that we’re not honouring that.  Do you know of a way in which we can reframe what we’re doing to support a positive culture rather than fire-fighting in this negative one?’

  1. Improving our cultural awareness and building our cultural competence. Perfection will never happen: There are too many variables at play in the cultural world, but what can happen is knowing when to pause, think, ask, reflect, self-reflect, and then when and how to move forward. This doesn’t mean going on a course that explains Chinese eating habits or Papua New Guinean betrothal rituals or knowing how the timing of Ramadan is calculated. It means refining the skills of being open-minded and curious and not being judgemental.

Ironically it means that pattern recognition and forecasting is legitimate, e.g. being pretty certain that someone from a high power distance culture is likely to behave in a certain way, but fully knowing that stereotyping is not.  It means stepping in when it is necessary to tone down an unaware person’s insensitive display of ill-informed bias. It really does mean embracing diversity.

  1. HR policies and procedures. Have they kept pace with the evolution of corporate governance at your institution and/or the shift in Canadian culture regarding work, discrimination and diversity?  If there is a value statement that says ‘employees are our greatest asset’ for example, is that reflected in the rules that govern their lives while in employ at your institution?  Is there scope for exploration of mutually acceptable new solutions in a complaint/grievance/dispute, or is only win/lose possible?

This is important because, if you are open to the creation of new, mutually acceptable solutions to problem between people, that are specific to them and which may serve as an example and not as a precedent, isn’t there scope that the impact of cultural differences will reduce and solutions will be generated from mutual understanding of fundamental human needs and interests?  And, if that happened, doesn’t the risk of CWB reduce?

This is important also, because the institution is accountable for upholding order and ensuring that everyone knows what the standards of behaviour are and what the mechanisms are to resolve conflict.  It means there has to be consistency in policy and process – fundamental elements of organizational fairness.  But, by mutual agreement between the affected parties the solutions may be different.  The substance of the outcome could be in the hands of the disputants, subject to the employer being obliged to step in should they fail to resolve their disagreement.  It is fair to give people the change to generate their own solutions. It is also fair to step in and take decisive action if they fail.  Even small unresolved conflicts radiate their little toxic heatwaves that contaminate the atmosphere for others.

  1. Consultation/Negotiation.Consider the credibility of a major change in the underpinning philosophy in HR administration.  Instead of policy typically being based on power and adverse relationships, what if policy were based on securing fairness?  Where would you find allies in such a quest?  How would you approach them? How would you make your case?  Would you share credit when you succeed?  How would you reframe your current policies and procedures, letters of appointment, promotion practices, resolution of conflicts, pay practices?  Not everything would need to change, but everything would have to be scrutinised through the lens of fairness.

Think about it.  It would make for an interesting project, at least, and at best it could result in a profound change in the culture of your institution – isn’t it worth a try? Don’t you have a goal, somewhere, in building a respectful workplace?  This is a good point from which to launch a cultural exploration of what that might look like.


Brodie, R. (1996) Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Hay House, Inc. Vancouver

Coffman, JR. (2005) Work & Peace in Academe: Leveraging time, money, and intellectual energy through managing conflict.  Anker Publishing Co, Ind Bolton, MASS US

CPP GLOBAL: HUMAN CAPITAL REPORT (2008) Workplace Conflict and How Business Can Harness it to Thrive.

De Waal, F: (2011) Moral Behaviour in Animals TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals?language=en

Edmeades, B (2009) Megafauna: First victims of the human-caused extinction www.megafauna.com

Highfield, C. (2013) How do accountants perceive fairness in the workplace? An Australian Perspective. PhD thesis, Charles Sturt University

Hofstede, G & GJ; Minkov (2010) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind.  McGraw-Hill

Pattakos, A. (2010) Prisoners of our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work Berrett-Koehler Publishers San Francisco.

Pinker, S (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Penguin Books

Wilson, EO (1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge Vintage Books, NY

Whitney, D.; Trosten-Bloom, A.; Rader, K. (2010) Appreciative Leadership: Focus on what works to drive winning performance and build a thriving organization.  McGraw-Hill

[1] Pinker, Steven (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature in which Pinker reproduced the complete list of human fundamentals at p.435 with permission from Donald Brown, (1991 and updated 2000).

[2] Megafauna – First victims of the human-caused extinction. Edmeades, Baz (2009) www.megafauna.com

[3] Hofstede, Geert & Gert Jan; Minkov, M.  Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind   McGraw Hill (2010)

[4] http://ualawccsprod.srv.ualberta.ca/centres/ccs/issues/sectiononeofthecanadiancharterofrightsandfreedoms.php

[5] Folger, R & Cropanzano, R (1998) Organizational Justice and Human Resource Management.  Thousand Oaks, CA US, Sage Publications, cited in the PhD thesis of C. Highfield (see References)

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