What is fairness?
A person’s experience of fairness is based on three dimensions:
Relational: how the person is treated at every step
Procedural: the process used to make the decision
Substantive: the decision itself
The fairness triangle (adapted from the Ombuds Saskatchewan fairness triangle) can be used by students, staff, faculty or administrators, whether you are making or being affected by a decision.
Relational fairness tips
Listen to understand, rather than to respond. This will give you useful information to base next steps or a decision on. It also builds trust and reciprocal respect even if you disagree with the other person.
- Inquire (rather than accuse or defend) by asking relevant probing and clarifying questions and gathering relevant information.
- Provide clear information by using plain language as much as possible, explore any extenuating circumstances, consider appropriate exceptions, and identify options or referrals.
Example: You’re a student and you disagree with a grade you received. Avoid assumptions such as, “This grade is completely unfair! Jon didn’t write as well as I did but got a higher grade!”
- “I think my grade is inconsistent with the quality of work I put into the project.”
- “What are the criteria for grading?”
- “Can you give me feedback on my work?”
- “In this section, I demonstrated my understanding of the relevant concept. Could you reconsider the mark for this section?”
- If needed, ask: “What is the procedure for reviewing a grade?”
Procedural fairness tips
- Procedural fairness has two basic components: the right to be heard and the right to an unbiased decision. An important aspect to the “right to be heard” is appropriate notification so the person can understand the concerns and relevant criteria, such as policy, before responding.
- Consult as needed with other services or resources.
- Identify the relevant policy or procedure, consider the grounds (criteria) and follow the steps and timelines.
- Procedural requirements increase with the seriousness of the issue, the potential consequences, and/or the level of decision-making.
- For example, for a late penalty on a paper, the instructor assigns (or doesn’t assign) the penalty based on the course outline and, if applicable, any relevant information provided by the student.
- This is less serious than a plagiarism issue with a potential failing grade. Here, the student is given written notification of the allegation, access to information about the specific concerns and an opportunity to respond. The Chair or Dean communicates the decision in writing, including the reason(s) for the decision.
- If you are the decision-maker and the situation is not resolved at your level, refer the person to the next step in the process. If you believe a decision affecting you is not fair, ask an administrator or the ombudsperson about next steps in the process.
Example: You’re an instructor, and a student disagrees with a grade and a late penalty. Avoid dismissing the student’s concerns, such as, “All grades are final. Please refer to the course outline.”
- “Please come to my office hours (or make an appointment or send me an email) so I can hear your concerns and we can resolve this.”
- If the concerns are purely about the grade, your process would include steps such as providing feedback and considering any relevant grade change; possibly giving suggestions for improvements or referring the student to needed academic resources. If the student still disagrees with the grade, referring them to the relevant grade review policy.
- If the student is concerned about a late penalty, you would consider the course outline in light of relevant regulations and extenuating circumstances. For example, you may need to consider an appropriate concession or accommodation such as an extension, or refer the student to the official academic concession process if the work cannot be completed during the term, etc.
Substantive fairness tips
- Good relational and procedural components help get to good substantive decisions.
- If a decision is being made about you, ask yourself what information the decision-maker needs to receive from you that is relevant to the issue.
- If you are the decision-maker, ask yourself the relevant questions to make sure that you base the decision on complete and accurate information and that you take into account the context and circumstances.
- Do I need to consult with another person or office?
- Have I gathered all the relevant information?
- Is there a policy?
- What criteria do I need to consider?
- Is there a legal or equity principle to apply?
- Are there extenuating or other circumstances to take into account?
- Am I the right person to make this decision?/Am I bringing this to the right person?
- The administrative fairness checklist for university decision-makers prepared by Nora Farrell, ombudsperson at Ryerson University, gives questions to consider before, while and after a decision is made.
- The fairness checklist by the BC Office of the Ombudsperson gives a summary of fairness practices in any organization, including: making information available, treating people with courtesy, respecting privacy, responding in a timely manner, decision-making, appeals and reviews.
- The Ombudsman Saskatchewan’s workbook, The Fine Art of Fairness.
- For more information about fairness and the ombudsman, see the article by Dr. Gerald R. Papica, The Ombudsman’s Guide to Fairness (2011).