Life is Not Fair
Just spent two weeks in the Middle East helping a Giga company to enhance the partnership between senior line managers and their HR departments. What I observed through my interactions with these senior managers was their fascination with fairness. Nothing got them in more of an uproar than an HR policy committing an act of perceived unfairness. I have noticed that in the Middle East, fairness is a topic that gets hearts beating significantly faster than in many other parts of the world.
When I talked to them about what they mean with “that is not being fair” I always got very contradicting answers. It is clear that the concept of what is fair, means a lot of different things to different people. However, digging deeper I noticed three different threads emerging; fairness on procedures, fairness in how you distribute resources and fairness in relations.
A process is perceived fair if it does what it says it intends to, is not used for any other purposes that its intended purpose, is documented, has been developed taking input from stakeholders, has room for people to complain (and deal with complaints), is clear and understood by all, is applied throughout the organization and in which line managers and employees have been trained on how to use the process effectively.
However, a fair process doesn’t always guarantee a perceived fair outcome. How many times have you heard from your employees that it is not fair that his/her colleague is getting ‘outstanding’ ratings whereas he/she is only getting a ‘good’ rating? Or where your colleague compares their career progression with that of their university batch and claims it is not fair that “he is now the CEO and I am only a departmental manager?”
I will dedicate a future blog on the concept of distributive fairness, as there are many different options. Depending on your point of view, you would think that people are treated fairly if:
- Their receives are in proportion to their contribution (equity) or
- They receive the same as others (equality) or
- They get what they need (necessity)
- They should get more than someone else because he / she is a… (origin).
The most tense conversations are with those people who believe that something should be distributed on the basis of different principles. Try to get a communist and a capitalist in the same room and share a bonus pool among their staff! (But as mentioned, more on this in a future…)
Having an employee who thinks a process is fair and who agrees with the outcome of his/her performance assessment still has one fairness hurdle to go, dependent on the way you interact with the individual. Whether you treat him/her with respect, dignity and politeness and whether you have been transparent in sharing all the required information.
So all in all, ensuring employees are treated fairly is far more complicated and treacherous than appears on the surface. This is probably the reason that line managers just give up on trying to treat people fairly and try to wiggle out of it by proclaiming that ‘Life is Not Fair’.
– Paul Keijzer