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Everybody wants to believe that they are being treated equally, with the same set of rules and the same consistency when it comes to meeting expectations.

"That’s not fair!" This is one of the first protests we learn about when we are young. Whether it is in response to punishment by parents, a grade given by a teacher, or a rule infraction by schoolmates on the playground, children show an instinctual dislike of getting the "short end of the stick". Psychologists refer to this as "disadvantageous-inequity aversion". (see related article in The New Yorker) Getting less than others is perceived to be an insult and a demotion in social status. It’s no wonder that when we grow up and transition into the competitive work world, our opinion of how fairly (or not) we are being treated continues to strongly impact our thinking and behaviors.

Why should leadership care whether employees perceive fairness in the workplace? Because a perception of fairness is one of the key elements to building trust in an organization, and trust is the key to being a great place to work according to Michael Bush, CEO of The Great Place to Work Institute (GPTW).

And why should a company strive to be recognized as a great place to work? The GPTW conducts the annual global survey that provides the data for Fortune magazine’s "100 Best Companies to Work For" list. As of September 2014, those companies had been shown to deliver almost twice the annualized returns of other companies in the general market over the previous 15 years. This superior performance shouldn’t be surprising. Engaged employees typically demonstrate high levels of creativity and productivity, and they are motivated to stay, so turnover (and its resulting costs) are very low.

This is best represented with a visual

Fairness —> Trust—> Great Place to Work —> Market Leading Financial Performance

The challenge for leadership is how to create a culture of fairness, especially given that what is fair seems very subjective in nature and could vary in the eye of the beholder. Examining the definition of fairness may yield some clues. Dictionary.com says fairness is "the state, condition, or quality of being fair, or free from bias, dishonesty or injustice; evenhandedness; proper under the rules". That last clarification is crucial. The foundation of fairness is the existence of standards against which decisions and behaviors are measured. Those standards may be formal or informal, written or unwritten. Actions taken that are consistent with the "rules" are considered to be fair.

If you are a leader of people, ask yourself how well you do in using these approaches to cultivate a sense of fairness in your team or organization.

1)  Establish clear expectations for output and quality and then consistently hold all team members accountable for their performance. 

2)  Reward goal achievement commensurate with the accomplishment.

3)  Provide candid, constructive and timely feedback when performance is below standard.

4)  Give credit where credit is due for new ideas and suggestions.

5)  Listen to differing opinions with an open mind and provide an explanation for decisions.

6)  Avoid the appearance of favoritism. Nothing will de-motivate employees as much as a manager who gives better treatment to one employee over another for no justifiable reason.

See related FastCompany article: 6 Ways to Tell if Your Workplace is Fair

One final note:  "Fair" is not the same as "equal". For example, not all employees earn the same salary. People accept that compensation varies based on understandable criteria such as required education and experience. Again, the key is clarity in establishing the rules of game, and then playing by the rules.

Thanks to Diane Janovsky of HPI Solutions for her thoughts on this important subject.