Being Fair – March 24, 2006

Being Fair

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 18 – March 24, 2006

My younger son is a baseball player; he spends several nights a week going to practice and then has a game on one or both days of the weekend. Clearly this is not a passing fad for him, but something he loves and cares deeply about. The bad thing about caring so much is that when something doesn’t go quite right it is ten times more painful than it is for those things that you might have a lukewarm connection to.  In a recent game Charlie was called out by an umpire who was in a poor position to make a call, his line of site to the play was blocked. The fair thing to do would have been to consult the plate umpire, who had an unobstructed view of the play. The spectators were outraged at the call; this was exacerbated by knowing the umpire was the father of one of the children on the opposing team.

I found it a challenge to console my son, because it just wasn’t right and sadly my words of wisdom ‘honey life is not fair – get over it already’ didn’t ease the pain he felt. Despite being taught as young children that we should ‘be fair’ it is one of those things that doesn’t happen as often as it should and while saying ‘life is not fair’ might work when something bad happens that you have no control over, it doesn’t carry much weight when genuine unfairness occurs. I believe there is a difference between bad luck and unfair behaviour. For instance it was not an absence of fairness that friends of ours were driving from Seattle to Spokane three weeks ago on a two way road at the exact moment when a driver coming the other way had a heart attack and crossed the road. It was bad luck that they were there, it was bad luck that their cars collided, and it bad luck that they were killed, it is bad luck that one of their kids is still in a coma and if and when he wakes up his life will be far different than he imagined it before those two cars collided. This wasn’t unfair, it would not have been fairer if you or I were in that car, it was just stupid bad luck.

When people are treated fairly and with respect, they are more likely to accept decisions, or the outcomes of those decisions. In the context of a work environment this is called practicing ‘process fairness’. Just as there is a difference between fairness and luck, there is also a difference between process fairness and outcome fairness. We don’t always agree with what happens at work, which doesn’t mean that it was not fair. Unfortunately, the reality is that oftentimes what happens really isn’t fair, and the consequences of obvious unfair actions can have a negative impact on an organisation.

When people feel hurt by their companies they tend to retaliate. Reactions can vary from withdrawing at work, to leaving, to extreme cases of sabotage or violence. I recognise that this is not something dealt with in Australia. I made a comment once about ‘going postal’ and got one of those stunned mullet looks from the person I was talking to. The phrase ‘going postal’ was quite popular in the US after a bad string of violent incidents in workplaces occurred, for some unknown reason it seemed to happen more in post offices than other work environments. Perhaps there was too much stress with the imminent demise of their livelihood with the onset of e mail? The term going postal refers to being so unhappy, so fed up that you march into your place of employment with a handgun and shoot everyone, and everything that was getting on your nerves. Living in a kinder gentler society in Australia, you might not understand being pushed to such extremes; I noted there is nothing in gPool on boss or co-worker homicide.

A study in the late 90’s by Duke University’s Alan Lind and Jerald Greenberg from Ohio State found that only 1% of employees who felt they were treated with a high degree of process fairness filed lawsuits for wrongful termination, versus 17% for those who felt they were treated with a low degree of process fairness. HBR has put this in monetary terms. The expected cost savings to a business for practicing process fairness is $1.28 million for every 100 employees. With the new workplace relation laws coming into effect in Australia we might see a similar impact to business.

The benefits of being fair can be seen in many industries, medical practitioners who practice process fairness are less likely to be sued for malpractice. Patients who feel they have been treated disrespectfully and who have not had their problem explained to them, or been allowed to question and discuss treatment with their doctor are more likely to file a malpractice lawsuit than those that feel they got poor treatment. There is legislation being drafted in the US now that will allow a doctor to apologise for medical errors without increasing the risk of lawsuits. By making an apology inadmissible during a lawsuit doctors could express regret without worrying about legal action and this would give us all a bit more of what we all want – common courtesy and respect = fairness.

In researching this article I found examples of the benefits of process fairness in Hollywood of all places. It seems that the in thing in many TV dramas is to kill off one of the main stars of the show. Apparently, this is the only way to keep us hooked on the dramas and off reality TV. The script writers have found that if they tell the actors that they are going to die before they discover it practicing their lines it keeps the actors from getting angry.

Process fairness pays off in other areas beyond avoiding lawsuits. Process fairness can be used to inspire employees to carry out a company’s vision or embrace a new strategic plan, rather than sabotage it. The fact is that most strategic and organisational change initiatives fail in their implementation and not their conception. The same could be said for embracing a new work environment, which is why we always suggest a change management program run in parallel with our design work.

Process fairness plays a role in creative environments too. Studies show employees working in creative fields that have a high degree of autonomy have a higher degree of creativity and innovation. The connection here is that operational autonomy is a version of process fairness. When employees feel that they are being micro managed creativity will suffer.

So if being fair is so good for people and business why don’t more of us do it? Part of the reason is due to a perception gap that exists between managers who think they are being fair and respectful and the perception of their direct reports. I attended a conference last year where this gap in perception was highlighted. When coaching managers Human Synergistic has both manager and his direct reports take a survey. The difference in results was sobering, which goes to show you that what you see in the mirror when you wake up in the morning could be something quite different to what others see.

One reason given for more businesses not practicing process fairness is the lack of obvious benefits to executives. Another reason is that in some cases corporate policy hinders process fairness. I have had to lay off employees in the past and was advised by the human resources department to say nothing. At another place of employment that also started with a G we were all told that if anyone ever called for a reference on another employee we were  to say that they worked here from date X to date Y. Couldn’t say anything about whether they designed well, showed up for work on time or embezzled from the company.

The most common reason for managers not being fair in the workplace is the desire to avoid uncomfortable situations. Leaders have to manage their own internal dramas as well as their anxiety about interpersonal sensitivity, for many it is simply easier to avoid the situation. “Emotional contagion” comes into play; this is when we mimic the emotions of others. When someone laughs you laugh, when they cry if you are a manager, you might prefer to head for the hills.

have shown that fair process training can make a big difference so it is surprising that more companies do not make this a top priority. If what we saw in our Net Gens workshop is any indication the next generations will have a much greater expectation of fairness in the workplace than we have today. We are already beginning to see a subtle shift of focus away from what is achieved or produced by a business and the fairness of the process used to create it. I sold all of my shares in Enron.

Ultimately each of us decides for ourselves what we believe to be fair. I will leave you three drivers of process fairness that you can use for a guide. The first is how much input we have in a decision, are our opinions requested and if so are they given seriously consideration. Second we look for consistency and knowledge that the decision was based on accurate information. Did the person making the decision do their homework? Finally the way that people behave when a decision is made has the ability to alter its impact. Do they treat an employee with respect, actively listening to any concerns that they may have. If we were all to follow these tips the lawyers would be driving Holdens.


Fairness In The Workplace

Australian Council of Trade Unions Website

Working Toward a Better Future

By Leo Hickman

The Guardian September 1, 2005

Best Practice – Why It’s So Hard to Be Fair

By Joel Brockner

Harvard Business Review March 2006

Management: Seasoning Compensation Stew; Varying the Recipe Helps TV Operations Solve Morale Problems by Jonathan D Glater

The New York Times March 7, 2001

As the Plot Thickens, No One is Safe

The New York Times March 14, 2006

The Bottom Line; Weight At Work; Obesity Has Become a National Problem. That Means it Has Become a National Business Problem  By Gwendolyn Freed

Star Tribune October 19, 2003

Just How Fair is the Workplace?

News Release – SauderSchool of Business August 30, 2001




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