Let’s say a new promotion comes up at your organization that you are clearly qualified and ready for, but instead your manager gives the promotion to someone who used to be his or her college roommate (and because of it). Clearly that’s not a fair situation and would cause anyone to be quite upset. After all the time you spent working to show your dedication to the organization and its customers, getting passed over unfairly can feel like a punch to the gut and totally change your relationship with your manager and the company.
Fairness means free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice. This isn’t an easy thing to do because as humans we all have subjective ways of perceiving people, things, and situations. If an organization is biased, dishonest, and plagued with injustice, then why on earth would anyone want to work there? Employees want to feel valued for their contributions and know that their hard work will get them noticed. Instead of relying on connections and bias, companies with cultures that value employees work to create a fair and inclusive environment.
However, treating employees fairly doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. Let’s say someone on the marketing team leaked confidential information. You don’t fire the entire marketing team. Similarly, if someone in sales brought in a big client, you probably won’t reward or recognize the entire sales team. In order to be fair, you recognize the contributions of the individual employee who put in the extra effort to get results.
Treating everyone the same is a great approach to making employees feel like cogs. After all, these employees have different jobs, work preferences, tasks they are working on, skills and abilities, and personalities. Do you treat all your friends the same? What about your kids? If you have a 13-year-old daughter and a 22-year-old son, do they both have the same curfew, allowance, and rules they have to follow? I’m guessing the answer is no. Still, it doesn’t mean that you can’t treat your kids, and employees, fairly. Just because people aren’t treated exactly the same doesn’t mean they aren’t being treated fairly.
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Fairness is a tricky animal because as humans we are inherently flawed, and whether we realize it or not, we aren’t always fair to one another. We’ve all been in situations in our personal lives where we weren’t treated fairly. Perhaps it happened when someone cut in front of you in line or when a family member gave someone else a big birthday present and totally forgot yours. These are not typically pleasant experiences. If employees report that they are being treated unfairly, then clearly this not only becomes an employee experience issue but also becomes, potentially, a legal issue. Creating an environment of fairness not only helps employees feel motivated to put in their best effort, but it also protects your company from sticky and costly legal cases.
It’s very easy for us to identify when we are being treated unfairly, but it’s much harder for us to identify the specific things that are required for everyone to be treated fairly. Among other things, treating employees fairly means:
Knowing them as people, not as job function
Understanding personal circumstances and situations
Listening to all employees
Giving everyone a fair and honest opportunity without stacking the deck
Being emphatic and when needed, sympathetic
Acting like a human and treating other employees like grown-ups
This is why many organizations today are offering training in areas of bias detection, empathy, and emotional intelligence. These trainings help employees at all levels realize their unconscious biases that everyone naturally has and work to find solutions of how they can overcome those biases to be more inclusive and aware of their emotions. The goal is to help all employees feel like they are treated fairly.
Treating employees fairly helps create a balanced and flexible approach to the employee relationship. Communicate your practices of being fair without being homogenous. Try to eliminate bias in your organization and help others recognize their own natural biases. Treating employees fairly can be difficult to pinpoint, but it can make a huge difference in helping employees feel valued and respected.
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