“But… but… it’s not fair!”
In a perfect world, you could make all your employees happy all the time; reality may be different story.
Fairness is relative in the world of business. Mandatory overtime may be necessary, causing some employees to need to shift their personal lives around to accommodate it. Not all employees will like their jobs or assignments. Things, at times, just won’t seem fair to some employees.
This is not to say that all employees can – or should – be treated equally all the time. Not everyone will meet performance goals, be promoted or get a raise at the same pace. Some jobs are more flexible than others or offer work-from-home opportunities. High performers will earn more coveted work. Low performers may get jealous, but simply are not capable.
So if all employees don’t always have to be treated equally, what IS workplace fairness? Does it exist? Is it really something to worry about?
It is. Treating employees fairly goes beyond keeping an eye out for discriminatory bias or workplace cliques that may affect employment decisions. Day-to-day decisions can have a huge effect on the perception of whether your workplace plays fair.
Fairness in Rewards
Even when rewarding good performance, employers can run afoul of fair practices:
A company was struggling to manage a young employee who was in her first job. She was becoming unreliable and making mistakes on her scheduling app. Simultaneously, she began complaining about her hours and how management was “treating her”.
After extensive discussion, what was at the heart of the problem? It wasn’t that management was mistreating her at all, but rather, an emergency made it necessary to change the scheduler temporarily, revealing that the first scheduler was rewarding strong performers by giving them preferred hours and shifts, and the new scheduler was slower in processing, putting the schedules out later than normal.
The preferential adjustments for the strong performers were inadvertently making the rest of the employee’s schedules strained and difficult to balance. Sensing the biased schedules for a few employees, the rest of the team was assuming the worst of management and becoming demotivated.
The solution? Reverting to a more equitable scheduling plan regardless of performance, having timely corrective discussions with employees when their performance was not meeting expectations, and communicating more openly with the staff in general.
This is not to say that good performance should not be rewarded; just that the rewards should not punish others by default. The company just needed to find a different way to acknowledge their high performers.
Fairness in Time Off
Time off, whether mandated by law or given by a company, is a precious commodity to many employees. Examining reasons managers are approving or denying requested time off outside of what the law requires is a must to ensure that it is done fairly.
Jean has been working at XYZ, Inc. for seven years. Each January 2nd, she submits her time off requests for the entire year to lock them in. It was a small department – only Jean and one other person, Tim – and Tim generally stayed close to home and didn’t mind working holidays. When Meg was hired into the department, after about 8 months, she was ready to schedule some vacation time at Easter to visit family. When she submitted her request, the supervisor apologized, stating that she could only have one person take Easter off, and that Jean had an approved request.
Meg was disappointed, but went back to her supervisor and changed her request to the 4th of July weekend. She thought it would be fine, as she was giving the company plenty of notice. Again, the supervisor had to let her know that the 4th of July was also not good because Jean was going to be off that day.
Meg went to Jean to ask if she would consider working one of the holidays she had requested off so she could visit family. Jean became upset, told her that she had seniority, and that Meg shouldn’t expect to get all sorts of perks because she was new.
The supervisor was now left with a dilemma – let Jean continue to dominate the time off calendar and risk losing a new employee or risk upsetting Jean to instill a new, more balanced time off request policy – such as a rotation – that all employees could take advantage of?
An employer who is overly generous to a small handful of employees for any reason (be it due to seniority, pregnancy, or parental responsibilities, among other things) may well find that it sets a precedent that can be hard to break free of in the future. Starting off with clear policies in an employee handbook that outline requirements for attendance and scheduled time off, and adjusting for extenuating circumstances as they arise, could prove to be a better option in the long run.
Fairness in work assignments
As an employer, you may have hungry employees who are always willing to jump in and seem to have no breaking point. They work long past closing time without complaint and seem to always be available. Are they getting the more interesting projects by default simply due to visibility rather than skill and results?
Liam took any and all assignments, preferring to work weekends and long days to get them done. His new coworker Joe was enthusiastic about getting involved as well – or so it seemed to Liam. However, during the first project where they worked jointly, Joe needed to leave work a bit early one evening to bring his son to a doctor appointment. Liam was annoyed but said nothing.
A few weeks later, Liam asked Joe about working the weekend to get a jump on the following weeks’ work but Joe declined, citing family plans out of town. On one Tuesday evening, Joe gave Liam a head’s up that he could not stay late as he had volunteered to fill in for his son’s t-ball coach.
The project was right on schedule, but the manager happened to run into Liam one morning, who confessed that he was disappointed with Joe’s level of commitment and hinted that he seemed to have other priorities that got in the way. The manager was surprised to hear this and wondered if he’d made a mistake in giving Joe such a big part of an important project.
Are employees being given assignments or evaluated based on availability to work outside of the hours that they agreed to work? Some employees love to work late into the night and on weekends when the office is quiet; others use off time to recharge, pursue hobbies or spend time with friends and family. If job descriptions and offer letters clearly outline the expectations of the work schedule, penalizing employees who have other commitments outside of that range – or have rare exceptions to the normal schedule – but still maintain performance standards is not a fair practice.
So what does this all mean?
Periodically reviewing your internal practices regarding work distribution, scheduling, rewards and time off to see if they could stand up to scrutiny when evaluated from a fairness – and not just legal – standard is highly recommended. Actively working to ensure that employees are being fairly – even if not equally – treated will go a long way to making them feel that they are.