Fair treatment may not mean equal treatment at work

By Angelo Kinicki  |  Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership

“It isn’t fair.” How often do you hear that? Sometimes, I hear it as a teacher, but it’s also pretty universal for us all to encounter the phrase both in the workplace and at home.

So, what exactly does it mean? Sometimes, students mean I grade too hard. They often tell me about another student who studied for much less time but received a better grade. Grades reflect actual learning and correct answers on the test, not time spent preparing. You can see the difference in viewpoints.

At home, my wife recently informed me that it “isn’t fair” how much time she has spent training our puppy, Gracie. The pup doesn’t respond to her like she does to me. A professional dog trainer informed us that all puppies seem to respond to male voices better than females, for a while. Again, you can see the rub.

In both cases, my students and wife are feeling inequity . What they really want is equality . They expect their time and effort to produce outcomes similar to those received by others. Unfortunately, life does not work that way. Equity and equality are not the same things.

Does this suggest that we should not expect to be treated fairly at work, school or home? Of course not. I do believe we deserve fair treatment, in part, because perceptions of unfairness can lead to negative changes in attitudes or behaviors.

Look at the recent lawsuit by professional caddies suing the PGA because they believe they are being unfairly treated. They are not compensated for wearing advertising on their vests during tournaments, and they have no choice about wearing them. The related ad proceeds are valued by the caddies’ lawyers at about $50 million per year.

Most of us arrive at feelings of unfairness by doing equations in our heads. We compare what we get from our work, relative to what we give, and then compare it with what we think others get from their work. When we feel we deserve better, this leads to dissatisfaction and low motivation to excel. It can also lead to lawsuits, stealing, violence, unionization and cybercrime. Can you see why the professional caddies are suing the PGA?

If we perceive that we “deservedly” receive more for our efforts than someone else, then we feel satisfied and motivated, which leads to higher performance. Notice I said “deservedly.” Equity, or fairness, is based on the logic that you get what you earn or deserve. It’s not the same as equality, which is based on the idea that everyone should be treated the same.

Research shows that perceptions of inequity are associated with lower job satisfaction, engagement, performance and mental health, as well as higher turnover. The opposite is true when workers feel they are treated equitably. Clearly, managers don’t want their employees to perceive they are being treated unfairly, so what should a supervisor do?

Here are some suggestions:

It’s not just about money. So much of motivation comes from nonfinancial rewards. I’m big on recognition, as both research and practice demonstrate its value. Sadly, too many managers are stingy with recognizing good work. This is something we can work on at home, as well.

Pay attention to perceptions. No matter how fair we try to be, it is employees’ perceptions that matter. It’s important to maintain a pulse on employees’ feelings by holding focus groups or meetings or by administering surveys.

Give employees a voice in decisions that involve them. Involve employees in making decisions about important work-related matters. It also is important to create a work environment in which people feel “safe” providing constructive feedback. People will not speak up if they sense there will be negative consequences for telling it like it is.

Provide an appeals process. Employees should have the opportunity to appeal decisions that affect their lives. Listening is a key skill.

Leader behavior is critical. Both small and big actions matter. Employees observe who gets what, no matter how big or small the reward or punishment. Perceptions of injustice can be reduced by using specific goals and measures to assess performance.

Perceptions of fairness extend beyond local walls. My perception of fair treatment at Arizona State University is partly based on what happens to my colleagues and other professors around the world. Your perceptions also are based on the experiences of colleagues, friends, family and professional associates. I encourage everyone to stay abreast of employment policies and procedures used at other companies.

Being fair is hard work. Differentiate and be courageous. Remember the words attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”

First published in The Arizona Republic Mar. 1, 2015

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