How to Treat Employees Fairly in the Workplace

March 29, 2016

You probably thought you were able to treat employees fairly as a leader. And then the penny dropped. It probably happened when a specific experience came into focus and you were able to synthesize a whole new meaning from it. For me, one of these moments was a number of years ago when as an HR Director, the leadership team under my guidance made ‘amends’ for being stingy in the past years and promoted 50% of the managers in the organization.

I was so proud of this accomplishment. I thought the employees must have been elated with this achievement. One out of every two managers received a promotion during the past 12 months. Wow! But in reality, the 50% that were promoted were obviously pleased, just not as much as expected because promotions “were not special anymore”. And the other 50%, well somehow the possibility that their dissatisfaction was going to drown out the positive reaction of the others never seemed to cross our minds. And it did. From their perspective, it simply wasn’t fair that so many people were promoted but they were not.

Treat Employees Fairly: The 3 Main Elements

Creating a workplace that is fair is a tough challenge because each individual perceives fairness differently. Last week I identified 3 main elements that come into play for fairness in the workplace:

  • Fairness on Procedures: Do I give everybody the opportunity to be heard and do I handle complaints in a sensitive manner?
  • Fairness in How You Distribute Resources: Do I give everybody a similar opportunity and am I transparent in my decisions on how I allocate salary increase, training courses, exciting projects, and praise?
  • Fairness in Relations: Do I treat people with the same standards and do I recognize and appreciate uniqueness and diversity in people?

If you want to build a team that sticks up for each other and is really committed to the goals they jointly create, a fair workplace is a must. And to do this, you have to understand How Employees Assess Fairness.

How to Create a Fair Workplace

So what can you do to create a more fair place to work? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Say what you mean and mean what you say – Being open and genuine ensures that people always know where you stand creating a sense of transparency and honesty in your team. That, to me, means you’re fair. That also means you don’t tell people what they want to hear and take the easy way out or worse yet, be passive aggressive.
  2. Be the change you want to see – Leaders model the behaviors they seek in their employees. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to act with engagement, commitment and responsibility every day. Many people in the organization will automatically shadow your behavior which eventually will turn into a cultural mindset.
  3. Be transparent – There is a difference between treating people equally and equitably. Employees tend to respond more positively when the processes for managing and leading are transparent and the reason behind decisions are justified by facts and numbers.
  4. Align and engage all – Fair leaders provide the path to success for all employees, along with those that show promise. Have a development plan for all employees and a recovery plan for those whose performance lags. Make sure everyone is on board with the plan. As a leader, there will always be difficult decisions and changes that would need to be made, but a fair leader never takes his/her employees by surprise (especially if it’s bad news).
  5. Define the rules – ­Leaders who play fair always establish the rules of the game beforehand. Once the company-wide policies, processes, strategies, goals, plans, etc. have been properly defined the execution becomes as structured and fair as it possibly can. This is especially true in the case of performance reviews and promotions as it reaffirms that everyone will receive an equal opportunity to be recognized.
  6. Value everyone the same – Is there one individual in your team who informally has power over others which is not dependent on his/her title or position? This person is generally perceived to have an unfair advantage over others and is feared by other team members. Fair leaders understand the effects such perceived power have on other team members and so they re-shuffle the deck to give equal value and consideration to all team members.
  7. Don’t pick favorites – How you behave as a leader can earn the trust of your employees. But the tendency to of being perceived as playing favorites will do just the opposite. Don’t limit your focus upon only one or two individuals in the team. Instead, distribute your time, attention and recognition across a group of people in the organization. Check out this video from Marshal Goldsmith on ’Stop Playing Favorites.‘
  8. Involve stakeholders – A powerful way to create equality and create goodwill is to involve key stakeholder in decisions making. This will not only create transparency in the process but at the same time will ensure that the opinions and input of other members of the team are valued.
  9. Discourage politicking – Office politics even though a detestable practice is commonly prevalent in every organization and more often than not, leaders tend to get pulled in. As a leader, you’re expected to have a neutral stance concerning people and situations. You need to establish a reputation for discouraging politics at work and advocating open communication among team members to resolve matter with fairness and impartiality.
  10. Create opportunities for others – Leaders often have many perks and advantages and a good leader knows when to seize an opportunity but most importantly knows when to forgo an advantage. Every once in a while chose a well-deserving candidate to shine the light on. You could let them attend an important event on your behalf or lead and deliver an important presentation.
  11. Be generous in giving credit – The most elevating and yet the least practiced form of fairness. Everyone wants to be recognized for the effort and hard work they have put into a project. More often than not credit if given to the team members who have been in the forefront of the project. However, as a leader, you have a vital role of unearthing the efforts of all those who contributed. Make sure credit is given for their intellectual and emotional labor in the project.
  12. Rid yourself of personal biases – We all have personal biases. It would be a lie or a lack of self-awareness if a leader feels they don’t. The first and most important step to avoid personal biases from clouding your judgment is to know yourself. This way you’ll be able to make a conscious effort to not let your biases get in the way of rational and fair decisions.
  13. Be empathetic – Sometimes employees just need an outlet for their emotions and an opportunity to experience positive emotions. Provide employees with outlets by making yourself available and offering them a fair appeal process for their concerns and issues.

Leaders need to develop a sensitivity to understand the emotional powers of inequity at the workplace and to be more familiar to people’s emotions. Most of this is easier said than done but by investing time and effort in following these suggestions you can ensure that employees will have a greater perception of fairness within the organization. If you need more ideas, check this article out on Fostering Fairness in the Workplace. I guarantee it will all be worth the effort.

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