The extraordinary importance of fairness when times are tough

As leaders, your decisions and actions will be closely looked at over the coming months. What cuts do you make and how are they communicated? Who is most affected, and who, for now at least, can breathe a guilty sigh of relief? And as you make difficult choices on how to navigate the Covid-19 epidemic, nobody will be looking more closely at your actions than the employees whose identity, careers, and material well-being are so closely tied to their organisation.

In the coming months many organisations will need to share bad news with your employees, even as, more than ever, you need them to stay engaged, motivated, and creatively addressing problems that were hard to imagine only weeks ago. In deciding how to respond, your people will be asking themselves: did I receive the outcome I deserved, compared to others? Were decisions made with clear, consistent, and unbiased procedures? Was I allowed input? And was I treated respectfully, and given detailed explanations?

As a researcher and teacher in motivation, I study employee perceptions of fairness. Rather than look at employee pay or objective work conditions, I investigate how fairly employees feel treated. Why? Because fairness is such a powerful predictor of employee workplace attitudes and behaviours, especially in response to negative events. The bad news is that these employee evaluations are subjective: each person will decide for themselves. The good news is that even if we cannot always provide employees with positive outcomes, there are specific steps we can take to demonstrate fairness to our employees. As shown in more than 1500 academic studies, these steps are often inexpensive and powerful.

It is when the environment is uncertain and outcomes are less positive, that our evaluations of fairness become most important. Fairness shows that we can expect better outcomes in the future, that we are a valued member of the team, and that our managers have integrity. Fairness provides us with assurances regarding our future in the organisation, and makes it feel safe to invest and “go beyond the call of duty”, knowing that the organisation will do the same for us.

Employees care about fairness in outcomes, in procedures, and in interpersonal treatment. So, keep the following in mind.

1. Fairness in outcomes. It’s not what employees receive, it’s what they compare it to. Make sure you know what employees expect, guide the comparisons they make, and don’t promise more than you can deliver - or you will end up with disappointed and unmotivated workers. Don’t pretend that outcomes are positive if they are not, but do assure employees that the pain is being shared and that what they are receiving is fair compared to their peers and in relation to their contribution.

2. Fairness in procedures. Work hard to show employees that procedures are open, ethical, and consistently applied. You would be surprised how much employees will endure – and remain motivated – if they believe that the decisions affecting them are made in a fair way. And remember it’s not only about being fair, it’s about being perceived as fair. So show how decisions are made, and openly discuss efforts made to ensure procedures are fair.

3. Give them voice. Ask employees for input on important issues. Even if decisions take longer, employees will be more committed to implementing them if they have had “voice”. Giving voice does not mean handing over decisions to others, it just means involving them. People want to give their opinion and to feel listened to.

4. Give them explanations. Providing detailed and timely explanations is a crucial aspect of fairness. In addition to giving fair outcomes and using fair procedures, organisations need to communicate these to employees, and treat them with respect during difficult times. Don’t leave them in the dark about what will happen, about what could happen, and why. They deserve to know.

This may sound simple. Unfortunately, simple does not mean common. Most of the studies I have conducted in change contexts and other difficult situations show that employees frequently do not regard outcomes as equitable. They view managerial decisions and procedures as inconsistent and opaque. They often do not feel involved in decisions affecting them. In other words, their organisations are not clearly demonstrating fairness.

Using principles of fairness is not just one more thing to worry about, a sort of icing-on-the-cake, to sweeten the tough measures that need to be taken. Rather, using principles of fairness is key to your relationship with the people who keep your company going, even in tough times. Fairness is key to keeping them motivated and engaged.

And not only during these tough times, which will eventually pass. But in brighter times, years from now, when your employees will still look back and remember how fairly they felt treated in the Spring of 2020.

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