The Fairness Factor

Melody Udell
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways
  • Cultural background plays a role in preferred qualities within business relationships.
  • Marketers should encourage direct experience with other cultures.
  • Researchers should test theories in diverse cultures.

Practicing fairness in a business setting is a pretty standard guideline for getting along in the workplace. Or at the very least, the importance of fairness is generally well-understood. But Donald J. Lund, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, challenges this common assumption in his study, “Culture’s Impact on the Importance of Fairness in Interorganizational Relationships,” published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of International Marketing.

“It seems unlikely that relationship standards originating in the U.S. are going to apply broadly to every culture,” Lund says. “With the drastic increase in global business, it is important to understand that our expectations for relationship standards may not apply in all cultures.”

Lund and co-authors Lisa K. Scheer, the Emma S. Hibbs distinguished professor and professor of marketing, and doctoral candidate Irina V. Kozlenkova—both at the Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business at the University of Missouri—used a team of multinational researchers to survey 434 retailers from 10 different countries (Australia, China, Hungary, Lithuania, Malaysia, Poland, Russia, Serbia, the U.K., and the U.S.). From their results, they determined that managers with a low tolerance for uncertainty place a much higher significance on fairness—an effect that is enhanced with greater exposure to other cultures. Additionally, managers who hold values such as assertiveness, success and competition placed an increasing amount of significance on fairness as their cultural exposure increased.

In their research, the authors recognize how cultural background plays a role in preferred qualities within business relationships. And, the authors ask, if fairness is deemed less important, what qualities become more valuable? “Because of these many possible and acceptable standards, it is important that researchers clearly define and conceptualize what type of fairness and what relative standards are being applied,” Lund says.


Encourage direct experience with other cultures. According to Lund, companies that engage in cross-cultural relationships with suppliers and buyers will reap direct benefits. “Foreign exposure sensitizes managers to values that are important in other cultures and helps in developing soft skills that translate into relationships of higher quality across borders.”

Understand the stability of the environment. Uncertainty can be detrimental when forging business relationships across cultures. Being placed in an unstable situation and becoming risk averse may cause managers to ignore their cross-cultural business partner’s expectations within the relationship.


Test theories in diverse cultures. It may be incorrect to assume that popular theories, many of which originate in the West, apply similarly across cultures. Researchers should keep in mind that many theories that apply to consumers or business partners in North America do not translate in Asia or South America.

Recognize the importance of other relational factors across cultures. “Our findings that culture impacts the importance of fairness means that researchers should further investigate which aspects of the relationship—such as trust, communication and reciprocity—are desirable in different cultures and promote healthy business relationships, and which aspects are not as valued and may be even counterproductive.”


Author Bio:
Melody Udell
Melody Udell is the managing editor of the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at
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