Can organizations be fair?

ME_456_FairnessI’ve come across many adjectives for organizations. They’ve been called big, small, ruthless, friendly, innovative, slow and much more. One adjective I’ve never come across is ‘Fair’. It makes me wonder – is it difficult for organizations to be perceived as fair or have we never asked? I know haven’t and I’m curious. What would employees say?

Human beings have an innate sense of fairness and it influences behavior in surprising ways. In an intriguing study published in the Scientific reports journal, when thirsty participants were given a choice between accepting 1/8th of the water offered to others and everyone staying thirsty, they chose the latter. They chose to go against the basic instinct of self-interest. Fairness trumped. Unlike chimpanzees, who will accept almost any offer whether it is fair or not, most participants rejected the unequal scenario regardless of how physically dehydrated they were. Our need for fairness makes us defensive, irritable and outright upset with the world around us. This need begins to show its signs from a very young age. We have all felt unfairly treated at some point in life and I can say without a shadow of doubt that it made you upset if not downright miserable. As much as we would like, it is not easy to say and accept that ‘The world is an unfair place. That is just the way things are.’

Given how important fairness is to us, it isn’t surprising that fairness in organizations is a highly researched field. Fairness is an organizational context is referred to as organizational justice and organizational justice research finds that employees are more motivated when they feel that organizational resources are allocated fairly, that organizational decisions are made in fair ways, and that their organization treats them fairly. How often have you felt like not giving your best because someone who does much less gets away with more credit than you do? Multiply this by a majority of your population feeling that way on a regular basis. Can you fathom the damage to your organization? I’m not going to list the benefits of a fair organization because there are plenty. It not only encourages employees to take great risks, respect colleagues and have fun; it also has an impact on turnover, trust and commitment to the organization.

Organizations don’t intend to be unfair. Au contraire, policy makers spend a lot of time and effort to ensure that it satisfy all criteria of distributive, procedural, informational and interactional justice. New ideas and initiative that tie into fairness crop up on an everyday basis. Think of unconscious bias trainings, affirmative action, new performance management systems & AI. Yet, we don’t label them as plans to create a fair environment.

While the focus on establishing fair procedures exist, not enough effort is invested when it comes to explanation and communication. I sometimes think ‘communication’ comes across as the magic bullet for all problems and indeed artful communication does solve many problems. However, sometimes, communication needs to shift to marketing. It may not be possible in every organization to incorporate radical transparency (though I hope someday it does happen) and until that day, we need to decide how we tackle perceptions. Especially, if they influence the perception of fairness.

Maybe it is time to talk about what the organization does to ensure fairness. Give your employees an insight into how policies are designed and the considerations that go into it. Maybe even let them design some. Make fairness a tenet in all your processes. If you are bold, install a fairness meter in visible areas and let everyone know what the current score is and how it is trending over time. It could be like a stock market ticker. If you put your mind to it, there is a lot that can be done.

Fairness marketing can also be extremely dangerous if your organization isn’t perceived as a fair place to work at. If that is the case, it isn’t time to talk about it yet. Instead, lock yourself in a closed room, take a good look at all policies and processes that exist, identify those that may evoke a sense of unfairness and tweak.

Not rousing a sleeping giant is the easiest way to stay safe and organizations have been doing just that. The right way, however, is to wake the giant up and be friends.

Tell me; do you think your organization is fair? Would you ask that question in an employee survey?

P.S: Here is the TED talk that inspired this post.

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