Ombud’s Corner: third letter from ombudsland - focus on fairness

Spring is here again, and once again it is time for the annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association.


In the two previous ”letters from Ombudsland”, I first reviewed the Ombud’s code of ethics and the four basic principles governing the role, and subsequently I shared a key message related to micro-inequities or “the little acts of disrespect and failures in performance feedback that seem to corrode some professional relationships like bits of sand and ice”. This year I would like to report on the perception of fairness and how this notion underlies the success of any inter-personal conflict resolution.

Fairness has been defined as “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination” and it implies evenhandedness or the quality of making judgments that are free from bias or injustice.

Fairness is a basic human need where perception is key – it is how we feel we have been treated that matters! How often do we hear that it is not the actual facts that cause distress but rather the way in which they were imparted or implemented that leads to a breakdown of trust or cooperation?

“I understand that he had to make a decision, but why didn’t he tell me himself?”
“She didn’t even check with me before committing us to that deadline…”
“They acted on his recommendation without even asking for our point of view…”

“It’s not fair…”

... are words that are echoed in Ombuds’ offices all over the world.

How does the notion of fairness impact conflict resolution?  During a keynote panel discussion devoted to this topic, the speakers were unanimous in saying that the perception of fairness was central to all conflicts, and that if this was not acknowledged and taken into account, there could be no real and lasting resolution to the problem. Whereas the experience of fairness may be culture-specific and different groupings may view situations in different ways, there is always a sense of the right to be treated fairly that is shared by all, and when this sense is violated, conflict becomes inevitable.

How do we, as managers and colleagues faced with making decisions about our co-workers, judge whether or not an individual situation is fair?  And how do we build an organisational culture and environment that is perceived to be fair?

The panel proposed the following “fairness triangle” as a checking mechanism for evaluating fairness in the work environment:

  • Substance: is the decision based on transparent and factual information?
  • Process: have all relevant points of view been taken into account?
  • Relationship: are we treating the person(s) concerned with due respect and consideration?

Furthermore, they went on to say, fairness does not always mean that everyone has to be treated the same – it is context driven and each situation needs to be assessed according to the nature of the decision, its impact level and the effect it is likely to have on the individual or the environment. What is always important however, is that there is a perceived consistency to the process involved and that all three aspects of the fairness triangle are seen to be systematically applied in all cases.

Fair treatment does not always imply that we will get the outcome we want from a situation of conflict. Indeed, it may not always be possible to reach an agreement with our counterpart, but if we understand the process by which a decision is taken and we feel that we have been heard and treated with respect, are we not more likely to accept and adhere to the ultimate solution?

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All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed in the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill