While I was on TDY with some of my sailors, we were driving from the airport and started talking about finances. Come to find out, one of my sailors had a rough credit report because he had made three late payments before in the past, and wasn't happy that it would take seven years to fall off his credit history. We went back and forth about what was fair. His point of view was that the credit card companies could afford to give him a break, while I argued that had he played by the rules and paid his bills on time, he would have been fine.
'Fair,' in the sense of fair judgement, is defined as 'marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism,' which by itself would be pretty vague, although there is the additional definition of 'conforming with the established rules.' What I've noticed is that most people tend to bend the first definition to their will while ignoring the second definition.
I'll give an example. I had an officer at my command that didn't want to complete his warfare qualification (in this case, the Information Dominance Warfare Officer qualification). I tried working with him for a number of months, and while at times he showed some promise and effort, in the end he simply didn't care enough to put the time in and study for his boards. So, he failed, and didn't achieve his qualification. The command ultimately submitted a non-attainment letter to our ISIC, which went on his record. As I found out later, this actually prevented him from entering the reserve force.
So, was it fair? The officer in question would likely say no: he thought the qualification was stupid and not worth his time, and he would argue that the letter destroyed his career. I would argue that we acted in accordance with instructions, and that we prevented the reserves from taking someone with a bad history.
Another example: I had a sailor that I borrowed from another shop to go and fly for my shop on TDY orders. I thought it was a good deal all around: we needed his skill set, and it got him out from behind a desk. However, he didn't do so well out forward, barely qualified in the time allotted, and in general was a poor performer on the job. So, after we brought him back, when he requested to go out again, I said no. On top of that, he was about 30 hours away from qualifying for his Naval Aircrew Warfare Specialist pin, so my 'no' crushed his chances for that warfare device.
Was that fair? It wasn't an easy decision. On one hand, I wanted to do right by the sailor and give him the maximum opportunity to excel. At the same time, I needed to do right by the taxpayer. Could I justify sending a known poor performer back out again?
In the end, I weighed all the evidence. My shop had given him a golden opportunity to do something many sailors don't get: to fly as a Naval Aircrewman. He blew that opportunity by not trying hard enough while deployed. Every supervisor told me he was not a good candidate to continue, as well as his peers that I talked to. I had no indications that he would do better, so I made the call and moved on. Likely he thought it was unfair from his point of view, but I think I was more than fair.
I've found a few ways to deal with the fairness debate:
1. Counsel often. Get into a habit of quarterly counseling (monthly won't work when you have a big division). I had a hard time at first counseling people, mainly because I simply waited until they messed up big time to then hammer them. That method, while in the short term is effective, means that you get to have uncomfortable conversations all the time, rather than focusing on building excellence. Quarterly counseling allows you the chance to talk to subordinates and lay out your expectations, and it gets them used to talking to you on a routine basis. It will likely nip problems in the bud sooner, and when it doesn't, you'll have documentation of ongoing issues.
2. Make sure your instructions are up to date. I'm shocked how many command instructions are antiquated, despite being "reviewed" every year. Take the time to make your command instructions match reality. Put in what you want and need to operate, not what you think sounds nice.
3. Use your division's SORM. If you haven't written a SORM for your division, you're missing the opportunity to lay out your expectations of how things run. For example, once I wrote what working hours were for unqualified vs. qualified personnel, my unqualified sailors began making more progress on qualifications, a win-win for both sides.
4. Remember that fairness involves the Navy and taxpayer too. Don't screw the Navy and our taxpayers by letting little things slide because of a sob-story from one of your sailors. There are second-order effects at play. For every sailor that cries his or her way out of a rule being enforced, you tell your other sailors it's OK to do that, and you likely pass the problems onto the next division officer or command. Enforcing rules doesn't make you un-human, rather, it helps you keep good order and discipline.