Management Tools: Perceptions of Fairness

By Kelley Mollica Jun 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, June 2004 No matter how impartial and just a manager may believe he is, employees make up their own minds.

You treated me unfairly.” I was stunned. As a health care manager, I’d just completed performance appraisals for my employees. One employee, Ramona, had held her tongue during our formal conversation about her job performance and merit increase. But later, she visited my office again. “You gave the other people higher pay raises,” she announced, in an accusatory tone. “You treated me unfairly.”

I didn’t know what to say.

As I sat at my desk after Ramona briskly left my office, I felt my face grow hot with anger and embarrassment while my abdomen twisted into a painful knot. I agonized over her allegation that I was unfair. How could she possibly think this? I had made every effort to do what was right, make meaningful distinctions among employees’ performances and clearly communicate the information to each employee. Of course I was fair!

But after a while (OK, after a long time) it occurred to me that, if I wanted to resolve this issue, I needed to try to see the situation from Ramona’s perspective.

That’s what fairness is all about— perceptions. You may feel certain you’re being fair to your employees. But fairness isn’t about you. However, some of the most intelligent and savvy managers have difficulty seeing “fairness” from their employees’ perspectives. It appears many people don’t see their workplace as fair. One in five employees feels his employer treats employees unfairly, according to The 2000 Global Employee Relationship Report by Walker Information Global Network and the Hudson Institute.

In addition to disappointing employees who expect fairness, a climate of unfair treatment can result in negative attitudes and destructive behaviors, such as low organizational commitment, distrust in management, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, psychological stress, aggressive behavior, retaliation, theft and turnover. Clearly, all of these outcomes are damaging to employee morale and the organization’s bottom line.

Employees tend to closely scrutinize fairness in two key areas. First, when you communicate unpleasant news, such as negative performance feedback, denial of a promotion or a lower-thanexpected pay increase, you can be sure that employees will examine your words and actions for evidence of unfairness. Second, employees will also be watching closely when you implement changes in policies and procedures, such as overtime calculations, work rules or reporting relationships. Your employees will naturally be concerned about how those changes will affect them, and they will be on the lookout for any evidence that the changes were handled unfairly.

Seven Strategies

When you, as a manager, need to take an action that your employees might perceive as unfair, the tendency is to want to get it over with as painlessly as possible. That makes it easier on you, at least initially, and feels quick and efficient. However, it increases the chance that an employee will leave your office feeling as though you are unfair. It’s important to avoid that mistake, and it takes very little extra time to ensure that employees feel they’re being treated as fairly as possible. Here are seven strategies you can use:

1. Explanations. Victor was a supervisor who expected a promotion to assistant manager. But his boss told him the promotion wasn’t going to happen due to budget constraints. Victor felt let down, but if the company couldn’t afford to promote him, there wasn’t much else to say.

The following month, another supervisor, Anne, was promoted to the assistant manager position that Victor wanted. Victor was furious. Not because Anne got the promotion— he liked Anne and thought she was competent— but because it was obvious his boss had lied to him. From the grapevine, Victor learned he hadn’t been promoted because his boss thought he “just wasn’t ready yet.”

You aren’t doing employees a favor when you try to soften the blow by hiding the truth.

Don Herrmann, SPHR, director of human resources at Lake Hospital System in Painesville, Ohio, advises, “Tell the truth. Not disclosing information leads to perceptions of unfairness.”

Concealing information or blatantly lying about the reasons for a decision will only make the situation worse when the employee discovers the truth—and eventually he will. Give the employee sincere and honest explanations about how the decision was made, who made it and what factors were taken into consideration. This doesn’t mean the employee has the right to know every detail of the decision, but he deserves to receive a factual explanation.

2. Counseling. Provide counseling to put the situation in a positive light. Demonstrate to the employee that you are interested in his success, and offer resources when available. For example, in Victor’s situation, Herrmann suggests explaining specifically what he needs to do to improve his chances at a later promotion. His boss could then encourage him to sign up for training opportunities, take advantage of the company’s tuition assistance or pursue other avenues of career development.

In addition, use this as an opportunity to make clear what’s expected of the employee. Work with him to map out goals and set explicit performance targets, responsibilities and timetables. Ensure that the employee has the resources and incentives to succeed. He will be committed if he knows that goal achievement will increase his chances of getting what he wants later.

Victor’s boss missed an opportunity to develop a loyal employee who knows that his boss is on his side, rooting for his achievement.

3. Accuracy. Teresa, a customer service representative, was a little nervous when a larger competitor bought out her company. Still, she knew she was a valuable employee. She had the highest performance rating among customer service representatives in her geographic region.

Several weeks after the buyout, Teresa was bewildered when her new manager, Ben, informed her she was being moved to accounts receivable. Ben hadn’t even bothered to read her previous performance reviews. When she insisted he request her file from human resources and read her reviews, Ben begrudgingly agreed that Teresa’s performance had been exemplary. But he stuck with his decision to transfer her out of the department.

The damage was done. Teresa never again trusted Ben to look out for her best interests. Eventually, she left the company.

The lesson here is to make sure you base decisions on accurate information. If you aren’t well informed about an employee’s situation, take extra time to learn the whole story. If performance is the criteria for granting pay raises and promotions, use recent, factual performance data. If it’s obvious to the employee that you ignored her performance appraisals, or that performance was not documented at all, she will view your decisions as arbitrary.

In some cases, performance information is available, but you suspect it may be biased or inaccurate. In this situation, you should postpone making a decision until more valid information about performance can be documented.

4. Bias Suppression. Appearances matter. You may be certain that you are objective and neutral, but how does the employee see you? Just a whiff of bias or partiality may lead the employee to conclude that you’re playing favorites.

One way to prevent the appearance of bias is by not making decisions alone. When appropriate, seek out other managers who can provide additional perspectives. Ask for their honest opinions. Pay extra attention to colleagues who seem to have a different “take” on the situation. These are the people who can help you keep an open mind so that you are not judging the situation from too narrow a perspective.

You can also put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Ask yourself, “Is there anything about this situation that might suggest the possibility of favoritism?”

Laura wanted to offer her 27 employees the option to work flexible schedules. She communicated the policy changes and met with each employee to determine his or her schedule preference. Laura, who had three children at home, later realized that she had encouraged employees with children to take advantage of the flexible schedules, while subtly discouraging childless employees from doing the same. Laura immediately scheduled a meeting with all of her employees and apologized for the inconsistency, offering each employee the opportunity to submit a request to change their schedule preferences.

5. Consistency. Consistency is another way of preventing the appearance of bias. When you use different sets of rules to judge people, employees will view your actions as capricious and untrustworthy. Unfortunately, this happens frequently in the workplace. It’s not uncommon for managers to “ignore” rules for certain employees, or apply rules more rigidly to one over another. By doing this, you are virtually guaranteeing that your employees will see you not only as unfair but also as unethical.

On the other hand, though, it’s important to recognize that consistency doesn’t always mean letter-perfect. Leave some room for common sense. For example, Herrmann described a situation in his organization where an employee had exhibited outstanding attendance for several years. Suddenly, the employee missed several days of work. According to the absence policy, the employee should have been written up and disciplined, but Herrmann encouraged the employee’s manager to take the employee’s individual situation into account rather than inflexibly adhering to policy.

“Employees should be treated based on unique facts; don’t assume everyone’s situation is identical,” says Herrmann. Take into account mitigating factors that most people would consider to be reasonable exceptions to policy.

6. Employee “Voice.” Ray worked as an engineer in a large construction firm. Upon arriving to work one day, Ray was surprised when his manager announced a new policy for how projects would be assigned among engineers. “You know,” Ray grumbled to co-workers during lunch that day, “we could have come up with a better system for assigning work. They didn’t even ask us what we thought.” The other engineers nodded in agreement.

From that day forward, productivity plummeted as the engineers frequently complained to managers that projects weren’t distributed fairly. Months later, the policy was abandoned.

When possible, include employee viewpoints when you’re planning major changes. Employees will be more likely to see their organization as fair if they’ve had some “voice,” or input into rules and procedures that affect them. Simply put, people are more committed to the outcomes when they’ve had a say in how things are done.

There will be times, however, when you must tell an employee that your decision is final. In such cases, “fairness might simply mean they have a chance to vent,” says Herrmann.

7. Corrective action. Even after hearing your rationale, some employees may choose to seek an impartial review of the decision through a formal grievance system. If they do, they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or rebellious for seeking another assessment of the situation. If you felt that a decision made about you wasn’t fair, you’d want the same opportunity to have others examine the decision. Give your employees the same treatment you’d expect.

Let’s say that, during the formal review process, new data appear that support your employee’s viewpoint. In that instance, admit that you’re wrong and correct your decision. Refusing to change a decision after you’ve received new data could be viewed as unfair. You may be afraid that changing your mind makes you look “soft” to your employees, or that you’ll become an easy target for any employee who doesn’t like what they hear. On the contrary, employees will be grateful for your willingness to reverse a decision based on solid information, and perhaps, more important, they will respect and trust you when you insist on standing firm on future decisions.

‘You Treated Me Unfairly’

If you follow these strategies, you won’t often be stung by the words I heard from my employee, Ramona.

On reflection, I did make the right decision. What I failed to do, though, was to understand why Ramona saw my decision as unfair. If I’d used the seven strategies, I’d have a different story to tell—a story about an employee who didn’t get the pay raise she wanted, but who still felt her manager was fair.

Kelly Mollica, Ph.D., SPHR, is a leadership development specialist with The Centre Group, a human asset management firm, in Memphis, Tenn. She holds a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in organizational behavior and industrial/organizational psychology. Mollica can be reached at


How To Respond

  • Ask questions and listen carefully. Don’t make assumptions about what the employee sees. Ask and listen. “Can you tell me exactly what you see as unfair about the decision I made?” Don’t argue or rebut. Seek information and try to understand the situation from the employee’s point of view.

  • Set aside your defensive reactions. Displaying defensiveness will only make things worse and will be an obstacle to achieving resolution. Acknowledge the employee’s perception as their reality, even if you think they’re mistaken. Say, “I can see why you might feel that way.”

  • Tactfully deflect distracting statements. The employee may attempt to force a comparison with other employees. For example, she might say, “You gave Bill more money, and he doesn’t seem to work as hard as I do.” You could respond, “In fairness to Bill, let’s just discuss your situation. You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable if you knew that I had discussed your pay and job performance with another employee.” Or, the employee may bolster his case by claiming that “everyone else thinks your new policy stinks.” You might respond by saying, “You could be right. For now, let’s just focus on what you think, and I’ll be sure to ask for others’ opinions later.”

  • Ask, “What would you like me to do?” The answer may surprise you. Sometimes employees don’t want you to do anything; they just want to be heard. Don’t offer to take any action until you’ve asked this question.

  • Deal with the specifics. If employees want the decision changed or reversed, ask them to outline specific reasons for their request. Ask, “Can you tell me specifically why you feel you should receive a bigger pay increase?” You will either need to provide a better explanation for your decision or agree to review your decision in light of what the employee tells you.
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