Framework for Fairness: A model for fair decision making in business

Some notions seem obvious: the need to be fair, the need to do right. And yet in our societies we are not equal. We fail to do the right thing on many levels, not because we are bad people, but because we exist in complex spaces with multiple viewpoints and multiple measures of success.

The SCAN Model for Fairness
This is my first attempt at a model to integrate fairness into decision making.

Some of these factors are cultural: our actions are shaped by our experience and notions of normal. Some are environmental: we operate under financial, resource and time pressures that drive us to pragmatism that may be at odds with what’s right. Sometimes it’s just ignorance: we don’t realise we are being unfair.

I’ve been writing increasingly about fairness and right, but wanted to start driving towards a more practical view of this: how can we help Social Leaders and others within an organisation to consider what’s fair, what’s right, everyday, in every decision?

Today, i’m presenting the SCAN Model: it’s a practical framework for decision making designed to put fairness at the heart of what we do. It’s designed to help Social Leaders be fair, to create socially responsible businesses.

The SCAN Model for fair decision making

The model considers four stages:

STOP‘ is where we bring our decision making back into the conscious space and consider fairness.

CONSIDER‘ uses four aspects of a framework for fairness to structure our thinking.

ACTION‘ is about taking decisive and effective action.

NARRATIVE‘ is about sharing our story behind the decisions and learning from it.

We will explore each of these stages in more detail later.

This space is laden with terminology: ethics, morality, equality, right. I want to focus on a practical space: what’s fair. I’m primarily interested in how we can operate successful, profitable, highly effective and engaged, socially responsible businesses. These may be global or local, working in any field or sector. Energy companies, pharmaceuticals, banks and armies may all be socially responsible in their work. They can all be fair. If they stop to think how. If they empower leaders to make fair choices: if they understand the impacts of fairness.

A socially responsible business may still make tough decisions, may still do things that some see as unfair, but they do so in a considered way, understanding the consequences of their actions. And they stop doing things that are just plain wrong.

Like selling people insurance they don’t need, when, it’s legal, but we know it’s not right. Like only making drugs available to people in rich countries, because it’s tough to give them away in poor ones. Like passing someone over for promotion because we think they will be taking maternity leave next year and we think we know what’s fair. Like not placing someone in a project team because they are homosexual and would need to work in Saudi, which we think would be tough for them. Like bad mouthing someone behind their back because that’s how everyone else behaves.

Fairness operates on many levels: some world changing, some as small as a conversation. It’s not about being nice: it’s about being authentic. If we are not fair in everything we do, we are not fair.

The environment: a web of influence

Let’s consider the environment we operate within.

Actions and Pressure

No action takes place in isolation: we are scrutinised and motivated within a web of influence. The organisations we work in exert pressures upon us: time, profit, resource, history, pragmatism, peer pressure, bullying, hierarchical inertia, ‘what we’ve always done‘, ignorance. Organisations are not bad, but they can fall out of touch with contemporary reality. The world is changing. Agile organisations learn to change with it.

Is your organisation agile enough? Does it need to learn to be more fair?

Organisational Pressure

Look at the Social Age: a job is no longer for life. Most people in their thirties have been made redundant, sometimes many times. The social contract between organisation and individual is fractured: no longer does the organisation provide structure and security, instead it provides a wage and limited opportunity. And the chance to engage later as a freelancer. Within this structure, who has your best interests at heart? Are all our demands fair? Is it fair to control people with restrictive policies on social media whilst expecting them to work from home in the evenings?

Often we asked for loyalty and determination from individuals to help grow a business, based on the old contract, which gave them a future within it. That was fair, after a fashion. Today, no such contract exists. So how do we make the demands fair?

Who is looking out for your long term development needs? Who is ensuring that there is a fair payoff for efforts put in now? Remember, payoff doesn’t mean money: it means a fair transaction of effort and reward.

For example, we can reward people with social reputation: instead of banning people from writing about their work on social media and blogs, we can recognise and encourage it. In the Social Age, the reputation and social authority they build in these spaces will help them get their next job more than the cv writing course we give them as part of their redundancy package.

I’m using the term ‘organisational pressure‘ to talk about those pressures exerted within the framework of the organisation: the insidious ‘this is what we’ve always done‘ conversations that prevent true change from occurring. It’s not impossible to be fair within this framework, but it requires thought.

Look at an organisation in change: this may involve redundancy, changed roles, new opportunities. Is it wrong to make people redundant, unfair? Not if it drives the business to profit and success, and if the business is socially responsible in how it gets there. Change is ok, but it needs to be transparent and clear. If people are under threat, we have to be open and clear, not retreat behind HR jargon and strategies aimed at controlling our risk. We need to be open to the risk that everyone carries.

Often organisations are concerned that, at times of change, the best talent will flee before it gets pushed: but if that’s our concern, there are better ways to deal with it than secrecy and policy. Be open, be transparent, share the opportunities that will exist as well as an ongoing dialogue about the changes that will occur. Being fair doesn’t mean we don’t make tough decisions: it means we make them transparently and narrate our thinking. And it means we do it with an understanding of the demands we can make of people under an evolved social contract.

Social Pressure

Social pressures are different: these are the pressures we feel from friends and wider society. Look at how the world views banks, big Pharma companies, GM crops, the search for shale gas (‘fracking‘), politicians, the list goes on. There is little trust, instead a general belief that greed has subverted fairness and right.

Our communities can exert pressure on us, and that pressure may conflict with organisational pressure. For example, we may have sympathy with the view that pay in banking is out of line with what society deems fair, but we may work in a bank and be unable to comment on this in social spaces. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible that in our job we make this happen, but in our social views we have uncertainty.

We cannot be blind to social pressure as it’s manifested in exerting pressure on us to do what’s fair. It doesn’t mean we won’t make the decision that the organisation wants, but we must recognise the social cost of so doing and the pressure that can build on an individual over time.

Internal Pressure

People often want to do what’s right, what’s fair, but because ‘fairness‘ is not black and white, we sometimes struggle to find a way. Or we sometimes just don’t even think about it. How often do we stop to ask if what we are doing is fair, but if we don’t, can we make fair decisions. It’s easy to just identify ourselves as ‘fair‘ people, but still many organisations create spaces and make decisions that are not fair or right. Within the SCAN framework for fairness, i’ve tried to work around this, encouraging individuals to stop and reflect. To make the unconscious conscious.

Internal pressures can exist when organisational values are not aligned with personal ones, or, more subtly, when organisational aspirations to be socially responsible are not aligned with personal desire to do right.

This notion of ‘social responsibility‘ is vital in the Social Age: it’s about alignment with wider truths. I believe that being socially responsible is the framework for organisations to remain relevant in the Social Age.


Whatever action we take, we are judged. At work, the judgement is often codified into performance reviews and feedback loops, but we are also judged by our communities and peers. Again, challenges can exist when formal mechanisms of judgement are not aligned with actions that are deemed fair. Do we recognise the importance of fairness? Do we reward it?

SCAN: Stop

To learn is to change: the first part of the model is an instruction to stop. We need to consider the role of habit and triggers.

Our actions are not accidental, although they may not be considered. Things become habitual: habits are efficient ways of doing stuff without thinking about it to any great extent. We can almost view them as patterns of activity that create cognitive efficiency: trigger one off and away it runs.

The problem is that habitual responses are not agile ones: one problem presents one solution, whilst an agile approach would consider diagnostics first then choosing the most suitable action. We don’t use habitual responses for unusual situations, but we use them all the time for regular conversations and actions. When someone asks ‘how are you doing?‘, we don’t seriously stop to consider it. We get tripped into the response ‘oh, pretty good‘. When we get into the car, we fasten our seatbelt. It’s only if it jams, or we have an awkward bag on our lap that we trip back into a conscious state.

But these habitual responses go deeper than just driving and conversations about the weather. We are conditioned into ‘same as ever‘ responses by many things in the world of work. We are triggered. The trigger is the thing that kicks off the sequence, and it’s these triggers that we need to reprogram our decision to respond to.

As well as asking, ‘is this within process‘, ‘will this delivery on time‘, ‘is it on budget‘, we need to add the conversation ‘is it fair‘, and ‘who is this fair for‘?

The first step is to bring the conversation back into the conscious space: when do we need to consider ‘fairness‘ in our conversations? Well, if you ask me, in a socially responsible business, everyday. As i said earlier, fairness lies in every conversation, not just the big ones.

It’s only by this process of normalisation and conversation that it becomes part of our culture, that it becomes a new habit.

SCAN: Consider – The Framework for Fairness

The second step of the SCAN model is ‘consider‘ and it’s where we introduce the Framework for Fairness. So let’s have a go at defining a space, a place where we can consider how to be more fair.


Once we’ve STOPPED and prevented our habitual responses, we can consider each of these four aspects.

How does the decision relate to our own INTEGRITY as the person we want to be?

How does the decision relate to our wider COMMUNITY?

What will be the IMPACT immediately of our decision?

What is the LEGACY of the decision?

The words in the clouds against each of these are factors that we may want to consider at each stage.

Integrity is about our core values: it’s the pride we feel from doing things right (and the way that pride is damaged if we are not true to what we know to be fair). Move too far away from what we know to be right and our relationship with the organisational culture fractures.

Balance is about mindfulness, about being aligned with our beliefs. Personally i could not work in certain places because it would move me out of balance, similarly, certain decisions trouble me. If we lose balance, we lose our platform to perform from.

There is a social impact if our integrity is damaged: it’s not just about how we are perceived at work, but more widely, how people view us. Are you trusted, are you fair? Things like trust, fairness, honestly have to be earned and proved: they are not bestowed with position or through money. Our communities and colleagues know this: organisational culture is shaped by this.

If we have high integrity, we are more confident and able to be more effective. The opposite is true too.

Community oversees our decisions: communities are based around shared values and shared purpose. If we become misaligned with that, we lose the coherence of the community, or our membership of it is jeopardised. In the Social Age, it’s communities that give us momentum and it’s strong communities that are magnetic to talent.

Communities exist within the organisation, but many straddle the boundaries or exist purely outside it. Take this community: we come from many countries and many disciplines, but we are united by uninhibited curiosity and the desire to co-create a story about ‘fairness‘. Our voice within the community is affected by our integrity and authenticity: if you discovered that i had been paid to write this piece (i haven’t!), it may impact on how you viewed it. Unless it was Amnesty International who paid, in which case it may enhance my credibility. Or the Government, which may reduce it.

Communities are highly engaged around topics which are relevant to them: being fair is likely to be universal. Being unfair is likely to damage our reputation and hence social authority, making us less effective at a time when our communities are everything.

When we look at ‘community‘ we need to think about how our actions will be interpreted by community and how that will affect our ability to perform.

The third aspect of fairness is ‘impact‘. What will be the impact of our decision once it’s taken. Will it impact on the coherence of our communities or relationships? Will our levels of trust remain intact? Do our actions make the world more equal? What is eroded? We will still have to take difficult decisions, but we can understand how they will affect our agility, our ability to effect change. And we have to understand that decisions which are unfair may spawn subversion, may fuel the fires that work against us. So being fair is in everyone’s interests.

Finally, there is a legacy: not just from one decision, but from decisions over time. When organisations have fractured cultures, when they have a mosaic of broken bonds, they leave us isolated, resistant to change, lacking momentum.

Cultures that are not fair lack diversity and hence lack social authority and power. Our strength comes from our ability to listen and engage widely.

Clearly there is more work to do around this, but my intention is to create structured pathways we can take through this framework to help in practical decision making, in real time, but within a framework that lets us consider how fair our decisions are.

SCAN: Action

The purpose of the model is to help us take action in a considered way: but it’s most certainly about taking action, even when that action is pragmatic and likely to be unfair to some people.

Our aim is to make fair decisions, but that doesn’t mean they are popular or, indeed, right for everyone. There may well be losers: the aim is to ensure that we are transparent about our thinking and we do so with integrity to our values. This is what true social responsibility is about: it’s not about making everyone happy, it’s about making decisions that are consciously within our framework for fairness, about consciously considering what’s right.

I’m considering two aspects here: clarity and transparency. Clarity is about not pulling punches. If we have effectively considered our own integrity, the community, the impact on all parties and the legacy, we should feel confident enough to be clear and decisive in our actions. And we should be transparent: when we know who the losers are, we should engage with honesty and transparency with them as directly as we do with those who have benefitted. It’s these conversations that help maintain trust and integrity, even through difficult decisions.

SCAN: Narrative

It’s a word you will hear a lot: storytelling, #WorkingOutLoud. It’s a trait of the Social Age, forming part of our reflective space, part of how we learn to do things better, to be agile, to be responsive.

So i’ve included it as the last stage of the SCAN Model, because if we don’t learn as we go, we can’t form new habits, habits that include fairness at their heart.

We need to think about what we did, reflect (within our own communities) and share our learning. What did we do that was right, what did we do that could inform others, what would we do differently next time and how have we included this in our ongoing, co-created story that we write over time?


The SCAN Model is intended to be a pragmatic way of looking at how we make decisions and whether those decisions are fair.

The SCAN Model - grey

It encourages us to STOP and explore our routines and habits, to discover if we are actively considering fairness in our decision making.

We CONSIDER our actions within the Framework for Fairness: how do they relate to our INTEGRITY, what does it do to our COMMUNITY, do we understand the IMPACT of our actions and the LEGACY over time?

Having considered, we take decisive ACTION, because Social Leaders are effective, they get things done.

Then we stop to NARRATE: reflect, to think on it, to share our evolved narrative.

It’s early days: i have spent some time exploring notions of ‘fairness‘, particularly in the context of equality, but i wanted to evolve this into something more practical, something that we can train. This is my first draft as i #WorkOutLoud, so do share your thoughts and feedback to help me evolve it one step further.

The Social Leadership Handbook is available now, exploring 9 core skills for the Social Leader

You can buy it here: SeaSalt Learning Bookshop

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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18 Responses to Framework for Fairness: A model for fair decision making in business

  1. Pingback: Reflection: why fairness? | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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  3. Claude Emond says:

    This is an awesome post, Julian. Very nice framework.I will promote it, try it myself and add it in my decision making workshops (referring to you of course). Cheers from Montreal

  4. Pingback: Framework for Fairness: A model for fair decisi...

  5. Pierre Deschênes says:

    Agree with Claude (as usual!). Julian, thanks for providing a simple process to measure and design fairness.

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  17. Great post! I am writing a course for LinkedIn Learning on fairness, and appreciate your insight here as I research the topic.

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