The F-Word: is life fair?

03 February 2016 -


The idea of fairness permeates every aspect of working life, but what does it all mean?

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

What word do politicians use most in their speeches? What word occurs most frequently in work tribunals? Fair. Is it fair? Are taxes fair? Are people from very different backgrounds treated fairly?

People at work are, quite naturally, highly sensitive to being treated fairly. Complaints about lack of fairness are ubiquitous. Performance management systems, mergers and acquisitions, selection methods, are all frequently attacked for not being fair.

Fairness is about equity, about justice, about being treated appropriately with respect to effort and ability at work and relative to the effort of others. Fairness is often a social comparison process whereby we judge our rewards (and punishments) not in absolute terms but in comparative terms.

Perceived fairness and justice is a very, very hot button at work, at home…indeed everywhere.

But there may be quite different types of perceived fairness. If you search the interesting cross-disciplinary work there appears to be at least four quite different types of issues around what is called organisational justice.

The 4 types of fairness

The first is perhaps the hottest. It is called distributive justice. It is about comp and ben: effectively how the spoils are distributed.

This is usually and mainly about pay, as that is usually the most obvious output variable and social comparator. But there are numerous other factors like office dimensions or car-parking spaces, holiday allowances, promotion and training opportunities.

Everyone at work has a ‘package’. It is what they receive in return for their work, service, loyalty, etc. And employers are enormously sensitive to the package of others inside the organisation.

But some things are easier to compare than others. Because people don’t usually speak honestly to each other about the details of their packages we have to guess. Some organisations try to prevent social comparison by keeping things secret; others try the totally transparent approach.

The problem lies in the fact that peers are acutely aware of each others’ work styles, productivity and co-operativeness. Work with a slow, unhelpful, frequently absent person and you know the burden you carry.

And if this individual is paid the same as you (when you perceive yourself to be co-operative, dedicated, productive) you feel (very) unfairly dealt with. Equal distribution is seen to be fair when, and only when, work-effort and outcome are equal.

Next there is procedural justice. This is essentially how fairness decisions are made.

What processes and procedures are in place to make distribution decisions? Are the procedures transparent or opaque? Are they PR flim-flan or serious business? How does one ‘price’ a new job? How are redundancy and early retirement packages determined? What rules are followed? Is it LIFO (last in, first out) or FIFO (first in, first out)? Is service and seniority rated above productivity?

Organisations have rules and procedures, but they emanate from very different parts of the organisation.

Some come from the board or finance; many of the f-sensitive ones are located in HR. These are the people who do all that semi-or non-statutory stuff on paternity leave, flexible working and space allocation.

The third is interpersonal justice. It’s how people are treated on a day-to-day basis. Everyone likes to be treated with dignity, respect and sensitivity. We all want a boss (and peers) with emotional intelligence.

We like our bosses to be self-aware, skilful, resilient, inspirational and competent. And we do not like them to have favourites. We do not like them to be moody, irascible and rude.

Everyone suffers from stress at some time; the question is whether that stress is passed on – whether people are unfairly blamed or harassed or put upon because of the frustrations of their boss.

The final type of fairness is sometimes called informational fairness. This is about whether the information one receives at work is both sufficient and accurate. It is an issue first of quantity and next of quality.

Most people believe their boss has at least one secret that concerns them and that is not communicated to them. Do a climate survey and you always get the same answer: there is a problem with communication. People say they do not get enough accurate and salient information about their jobs and their future.

People need this information to do their job. They need clear goals and feedback on how they are doing. They need all that SMART stuff (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, trackable).

They also need a mechanism, or a channel, for upward feedback. What they need and want are opportunities and the means to give and receive information that is important to their job.

Block a channel, hide facts and you get gossip, the grapevine….and whistle-blowers.

Perceived fairness is pretty complex then. And it’s pretty important too.

Obviously some people are particularly fairness-sensitive. But no-one ignores the issue. Most of the f – ing at work is actually about fairness.

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