People have an inherent need for fairness. In the workplace, perceived injustice has been directly linked to burnout and job dissatisfaction. The challenge for HR arises from the fact that one employee’s fairness often becomes another employee’s perceived injustice. For example, policies designed to address the cumulative effects of systemic injustice over many years may be seen as “special treatment,” triggering feelings of unfairness in other employees today. Various forms of accommodation, whether required by law or preferred by management, can sow the seeds of discontent and create rifts between groups of employees—all in the name of fairness. Everything from work scheduling to bonuses or office space allocation can be seen as unfair by employees when mismanaged.
The Elements of Fairness
When it comes to treating employees fairly, three main concepts of fairness come into play:
- Procedural fairness: including procedures used in salary increases, disciplinary systems, performance evaluation, recruitment and selection. The most significant contributors to high perceived procedural fairness are transparency (everyone knows the rules/system), and consistent application (everyone is subject to the same rules/system).
Distributive fairness: fair distribution of compensation, rewards and consequences such as wages, evaluations, disciplinary processes, profit-sharing, promotions and the acceptance or rejection of candidates. To achieve a high level of distributive fairness, a balance must be achieved among four competing principles: need, generosity, equality and equity:
- need - those who need more of a benefit should get more than those who need it less.
- generosity - one person’s outcome should not exceed the outcomes achieved by others.
- equality - everyone in a group should share its benefits equally.
- equity - the distribution of benefits is tied to people’s relative contribution (i.e. those who have contributed more should receive more than those who have contributed less.)
- Interactional fairness: this third concept of fairness, which is most often integrated within the two described above, refers to the way managers and other decision makers interact with employees. If reasonable and logical explanations are provided for decisions, and everyone involved is treated with respect and dignity, a high degree of interactional fairness can be achieved.
What is Fair?
Whether or not an action, process or the distribution of reward and/or discipline is considered fair is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, under the right circumstances, individuals will put aside self-interest in favor of the interests of others and still consider the outcome fair, especially if a positive relationship exists between all parties. More importantly, being heard and being treated with respect, dignity and sensitivity are often greater predictors of “what is fair” than the details of the distribution. On the contrary, people whose concerns are ignored, brushed off or disrespected will seldom (if ever) feel they were treated justly; and a negative prior relationship will further skew perceptions of fairness.
You won’t always know when you’ve hit a sour note on the fairness front because some employees prefer to quietly foment rather than speak up. And when they do speak up, sometimes you might be tempted to ignore these early warning signals, chalking them up to “recreational complaining.” Once the perception of injustice sets in, dissatisfaction and burnout may soon follow—causing damage that can take years to correct.
What Can HR Do?
Since fairness and perceived fairness are integral to sustaining employee satisfaction, avoiding burnout and building an enduring culture, it makes sense to establish practices that foster them.
Here are some things to consider:
- Are your policies and procedures clearly communicated and consistently applied?
- Do you actively strive for both procedural and distributive fairness, avoiding unwarranted preferential treatment for specific individuals, classes or groups of employees?
- Are the four principles of need, generosity, equality and equity taken into account when outcomes and rewards are being negotiated?
- Do you provide logical explanations for performance based compensation, bonuses and perks as well as any disciplinary actions?
- Are employee concerns about fairness addressed with respect and sensitivity?
- When implementing workplace programs or policies to support specific individuals or groups, are you providing necessary accommodation or simply offering “special treatment” under the guise of accommodation? In either case, have you effectively communicated your reasoning to all employees and addressed their concerns (if any)?
- Does your work environment promote positive and supportive relationships among employees and between managers and employees?
- Do managers encourage feedback, listen and respond?
Treating people fairly is important. Ensuring that they feel fairly treated is even more important. In this, as in so many things, perception is reality. At the end of the day, whether real or perceived, a sense of injustice in the workplace erodes trust and work is hell without trust.
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