Research Report

The changing contours of fairness

Can we match individual and organisational perspectives?

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The changing contours of fairness

Published November 2013

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This report is part of a three-year research programme to map the contours of organisational fairness. The programme is a collaboration between the CIPD, the Centre for Performance-led HR and The Work Foundation, and was conceived in the wake of a financial crisis in many Western economies which is reshaping the relationship between market, state, organisations and individuals.

In the years following 2008, we have witnessed huge anti-austerity protests in Eurozone countries, riots in major English cities in 2011, strikes against pensions and job cuts, and in the UK a crisis of trust in our institutions: legislators with their expenses; journalists with their monitoring of private communications; the government with their surveillance and utility and transport companies with their tariffs.

Throughout these conversations, a constant currency used was the ‘(un)fairness’ of the shifts.  With radical changes in the manner citizens were assessed on their ability to work, the move to Universal Credit and the hardening of policy to those out of work, the growing working poor, debates about the adequacy of the minimum vs living vs fair wage, the uproar about executive packages – all reflect an increased sensitivity to the manner resources are distributed.

The first section of this report looks at the nature and incidences of (un)fairness from the findings of the CIPD Employee Outlook survey. The report then provides a synthesis of a multi-disciplinary academic literature review on the sources, theories and applications of, broadly, ‘fairness’, ‘equity’, ‘equality’ and ‘justice’. 

Although there are dozens of ways of framing fairness, this report synthesises these into six broad families of fairness ‘lenses’. When these lenses are applied to a range of issues faced by organisations – women on boards; pensions; executive pay; equality vs equity vs diversity; corporate social responsibility; inter-generational rewards – alternative notions of what’s fair emerge.

"We often use a ‘shorthand’ for the word ‘fair’ and talk about ‘doing the right thing’
– a catch-all that can hide many a wrong action."


Contents of the report

  • Survey findings on fairness from the CIPD Employee Outlook survey
  • The nature of fairness
  • The operation of fairness in an evolving employment relationship
  • Mapping the contours of fairness – synthesising six core fairness ‘lenses’