• Can ‘fairness’ exist in the workplace?

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  • 9 Dec 2013
  • Comments 4 comments

HR needs to re-think how it assesses the outcome of its policies, argues Paul Sparrow

In a world of pay inequality, glass ceilings and endemic insecurity, what's ‘fair’ about the workplace?

Increasingly, there is a gap between ideas of fairness among bosses and employees, according to a recent report from the CIPD, Work Foundation and the Centre for Performance-led HR.

In further research employees were asked whether they had found anything particularly unfair in their working life in the past year as part of the CIPD Employee Outlook survey, 41 per cent said yes, and 59 per cent believed rules and agreed procedures were not applied consistently by decision makers. 

The data shows the greatest concern is unfairness over pay, followed by how workloads are distributed, bullying, favouritism, redundancy processes, decisions over promotions, implications of ‘flexible working’ (the consequences of actually working longer hours), performance reviews and age/gender discrimination.

Organisations expect employees to engage with the organisation beyond a nine to five arrangement and to have a more effective and collaborative relationship, delivering value over and above the job description.

But in turn that makes ‘fairness’ critical – being able to engage people not just as employees but as consumers, citizens and parents. The pace of change means it’s no longer enough to assume a general acceptance of the basis of the contract with employees, that an employer is instinctively trusted to be reasonable and ethical. We often talk about ‘doing the right thing’ as a shorthand for fairness – but it’s a catch-all that can hide many a wrong action.

I think there needs to be a new debate over what can be considered fair in the modern context.

Of course, people who are not on the receiving end of benefits and opportunities will point to unfairness – but that doesn’t mean there can’t be an open, transparent and realistic discussion about the difficult choices that society faces, and what that means specifically for HR professionals. 

To ensure the fairest way of navigating our way through the tough issues we must ask ourselves: “How would I design this policy if I knew I was going to be in the worst position my design creates?”

Different methods are needed to examine the basic issues, for example a set of different ‘lenses’ to ask the right questions about organisational policies and practices, either within the current social context, or in terms of their legacy. 

HR professionals often use ideas about organisational justice to aid the design of management policies such as employee voice and employee engagement, or practices such as appraisal and performance management systems. But we need to become versed in – not bamboozled by – a much broader set of considerations.

In the HR field we need to rapidly increase our skills and see the world through the lenses of multiple disciplines, economics, sociology, etc. 

And, more to the point, we need to do some more meaningful investigations and find out how employees, and other significant stakeholders, are themselves redrawing the way they evaluate our actions.

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Comments (4)
  • The workplace is a reflection of the general norms of society. What is happening outside the office is going to be brought into the office.

  • For job fairness become a reality we need employers to become real models of integrity and have an open mind (heart?) to accept the employees idiosyncrasies and ideas outcomes. Add to this a disposition to risk and willing to live adventures in thinking and doing.

  • The workplace is unlikely to be an island of fairness in a sea of globalised injustice. It is possible to make things fairer in the workplace, particularly if employees are unionised, but in the absence of wider progressive social change the working environment is likely to mirror the power imbalances that are so stark in the contemporary postneoliberal world.

  • Working with and gaining resolution to issues around fairness, equality and transparency in workplaces is crucial to gaining engaged consent from employees to work hard and commit to their oraganisations as this report and research from Engage for success shows.