New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



The Perception of Fairness

Dear Mary:

Lately there’s been talk in our building about the board not treating unit-owners fairly. Some owners have complained about unfair policies, others say we’re not enforcing policies consistently, and a few have accused us of playing favorites. I’ll admit that some of our recent decisions may make it seem that the rules don’t apply to everyone. But the complainers usually don’t know the reasons behind decisions or rules. In any case, I think we need to do something. Suggestions? 

—Accused in Alphabet City


Dear Accused:

Most of us react badly to what we consider unfair treatment — to ourselves and also to others. Our brains perceive unfairness as threatening. We’re unlikely to trust those we view as acting unfairly.


But a trusting relationship between the board and unit-owners is critical to a smooth-running building. So it makes sense to ensure that you have an environment that is fair — and that people perceive it as such. Here are a few steps to get you started:


Walk the talk. Unit-owners naturally assume that your building’s rules and policies should apply to everyone. But do they? Is there a “no dogs over 30 pounds” rule — and a board member who has a mastiff? Have people spotted a member puffing on a cigar in your nonsmoking building? Or taking two parking spaces when the limit is one? Regardless of what you say, unit-owners watch what you do. Make sure they see you playing by the rules. 


Provide rationales. Do you focus on describing the what, but not the why? It’s much easier to accept the fairness of a policy or decision when we know the underlying reason. Unit-owners are not privy to all the info that the board has, nor can they read minds. As a result, the rationale for a policy or decision may seem obvious to you but arbitrary (and unfair) to others. Before you remove that beloved Bradford pear tree, share the Parks Department’s warning that the tree’s limbs could fall at any time...and on anyone. 


Involve owners where appropriate. Sometimes it’s not enough to tell unit-owners the what and the why. Yes, they elected you to run the building, enforce rules and make decisions. But they also have expectations about when they should have a say. For instance, unit-owners may see it as unfair if you undertake a major hallway or lobby renovation without input from them. Your bylaws will outline where you must involve unit-owners. But you may want to consider situations beyond that where it’s feasible to involve them and might promote a sense of fairness. 


Handle exceptions carefully. Even when rules and policies make sense, there will be times when it’s appropriate to make an exception. This is tricky. The wrong approach could give an impression of favoritism. (Yes, others will find out.) It can also lead to requests for unwarranted exceptions and destroy your ability to enforce policies in the future. The key is to frame the exception in a very narrow and specific way that both justifies your decision and cuts off unreasonable requests. For example: We’re waiving fees for your delayed alteration because your general contractor was out with COVID for two weeks. And whatever you do, don’t allow an exception just to stop a unit-owner from complaining. In addition to creating an unfair situation, you’ll just train others to complain until you fold. If the rule isn’t fair, get rid of it – for everyone.


Though unfairness is a threat, fairness can be a reward. Your attention to creating a fair environment in your building can pay off not just in creating trust but in making unit-owners feel good. Certainly worth a try!

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