The Fairness Paradox

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what makes employee recognition fair or unfair.

Recognition, by nature, singles out individuals. Is that fair? A lot of employees would say no. They would say that everyone should be treated the same. But is that fair? If you complete 50 percent more work or bring in 20 percent more new customers don’t you deserve acknowledgement for that accomplishment?

Welcome to the employee recognition fairness paradox. I can see both sides of this issue, but have to say, I come down hard on the side of singling out top performers. I look at it this way:

If someone has to be dissatisfied wouldn’t you rather it be your poor performers?

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot you can do to improve fairness while recognizing performance. You can even recognize poor performers without upsetting top performers, but it takes a lot of skill.

I would love to get a discussion going on fairness. Here are some questions to get you started?

1) Have you ever received recognition that wasn’t fair? Tell us about it.
2) Have you given recognition only to have someone make a fuss about fairness? Tell us about the recognition and the response.
3) Have you managed to recognize everyone in very different ways without the fairness paradox raising its ugly head? How did you do it?


By the way: if you haven’t taken the generational preference survey please do it now! Also, I still need to increase the sample of respondents 25 and under. If you can pass on this link to someone in this age group, I would much appreciate it!


9 Responses to “The Fairness Paradox”

  1. 1 Jen Garner May 29, 2008 at 10:45 am

    I have two employees and they’re as different as night and day. Their job responsibilities are identical but the way they go about completing their daily tasks and handling situations are as different as my employees. I believe in recognizing both an individual and group effort and lauding their performances, just as I believe in giving constructive criticism as a group or as an individual, when the situation arises.

    I’ve found out that, if I ‘praise’ my tech-savvy employee on their customer relations skills, or give them a “hands above the best” recognition card for doing something that is out of their comfort or experience level, she tends to work harder and look more towards my customer service-savvy employee for tips and training. Same thing goes for my service-savvy employee; she’s fantastic with customers but struggles when it comes to the tech aspect of our job. When I give her a “hands above the best” card, or just give her verbal recognition and praise, for something she’s done that’s been more out of her comfort zone, she in turn works harder and turns to my tech-savvy employee for suggestions, training, etc.

    It’s been a fantastic work place since I’ve figured out that while they are a team, they are a team made up of invididuals with their own strengths (and weaknesses), and recognizing both of them as individuals has made the team a much stronger team.

    And, FYI, the tips I receive have been wonderful and I try to incorporate them as much as possible in my own “Learning Plan”.

    Thank you!


  2. 2 Cindy Ventrice May 29, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Thanks Jen!

    Does either employee show any frustration that even though he or she is the tech or service expert you are recognizing the other?


  3. 3 Dave May 29, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Making sure ALL your employees feel valued regardless of their performance is the key. People are more important than profits and even the success of your business. If you value your employees in this way I believe there will be no feelings of unfairness when you give recognition to top performers.

  4. 4 Debbie May 30, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    Cindy — Fortunately, I haven’t come across this paradox; however, my son experienced it several years ago. He received an award from his company. Although he was flattered, when receiving his award, he acknowledged his co-workers for their assistance in his work. After the presentation, he privately requested his co-workers also be recognized as his co-workers had assumed other parts of a large project so he could focus on his part. Had they not assumed the other part, he believed his part of the project would not have achieved the succes it did. The company agreed and presented his co-workers with recognition that was suited to them. My son was happy, his co-workers were happy, and his company felt they had accomplished a major morale coup.

  5. 5 Cindy Ventrice May 30, 2008 at 1:41 pm


    It sounds like you raised an exceptional person! Your son’s largesse in sharing credit made every look good. What a great example of how we can all make a difference!


  6. 6 Mary June 2, 2008 at 9:45 am

    A previous administrator I worked for seemed to relish finding minutia to complain about instead of ever recognizing the big picture and all the things that were done so very well for a major event. She would then turnaround and send a “job well done” card for something trivial like assisting a colleague who was having technical difficulty with a PowerPoint presentation. The praise seemed so insincere, like trying to make a quota for passing out praise cards.

  7. 7 Cindy Ventrice June 4, 2008 at 9:30 am


    This is a good example of a supervisor who doesn’t connect recognition to what is most valued. She may have had good reasons for recognizing who she did, but if so she did a poor job of communicating it.

    When employees are left with the impression that the supervisor is recognizing the wrong things, that supervisor comes across as clueless and loses all respect.


  8. 8 Debra June 6, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Some years ago now another volunteer member of an organization I belong to was given an award for a particular service. Her accomplishments were read out to the attendees at an AGM and much of the accomplishments she was credited with were not her accomplishments, they were put in place by me before she came on board. I felt really badly that no one had even remembered what I’d done to further the organization’s profile.

    Then, a few years later, I was given the same award (on my birthday yet which somehow made it feel even worse) and the accomplishment that was cited for my award was that I was “nice”. It made me feel stupid and embarrassed.

  9. 9 Cindy Ventrice June 6, 2008 at 1:52 pm


    When an organization gives credit to the wrong person it does a lot of damage. Your contribution was undervalued and everyone “in the know” thinks the organization is clueless!


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My name is Cindy Ventrice. I am the author of the best-selling book Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works and the companion guide Recognition Strategies That Work.

My work has been quoted in The New York Times, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Workforce Magazine, and Tim Sanders' book The Likeability Factor.

Visit my website today!

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