Twenty-one years ago I received the most significant promotion of my career. I was elevated from the role of GM, Adelaide (1 business unit, five staff) to GM, Sydney (4 business units, 30 staff).
The company was going through a significant transition after Greg Savage’s departure the previous year and, after expecting to be in South Australia for three to four years, I was suddenly asked to return to Sydney after just short of two years in Adelaide.
I now had divisional general managers who were most recently peers, reporting to me. I was not well equipped for my new role and I struggled to get on top of the job.
The importance of being fair, and being seen to be fair, only struck home after I bungled the handling of what should have been a fairly straightforward issue; a client complaint about a consultant.
I can’t recall the substance of the complaint but in my haste to be seen as acting decisively I spoke to the client about the issue then called a meeting with the consultant to tell her what she needed to do to rectify the issue.
The meeting with the consultant went disastrously. She quickly became upset when I failed to ask her for her side of the incident and, instead, proceeded to dictate how the client was to be placated.
In not enquiring as to the consultant’s side of the issue I broke two of the four aspects of workplace fairness.
In a June 2018 Harvard Business Review article, researchers Elad N. Sherf Ravi S. Gajendran, and Vijaya Venkataramani summarised fairness as follows:
To be judged as fair by employees, bosses have to attend to four aspects of fairness:
- Distributive fairness occurs when employees are equitably rewarded for their contributions.
- Transparent and clear procedures are necessary to arrive at those rewards. These include ensuring decisions are consistently applied across people and situations and are based on accurate information, suppressing bias in the decision process, and providing opportunities for employees to voice concerns.
- Informational fairness is exhibited by managers through articulating the logic behind their decisions in a timely manner.
- Interpersonal fairness is demonstrated by treating employees with dignity and respect
I failed to treat the consultant with respect by not asking for her version of events and I failed to provide any reasoning for my decision as to how the client’s dissatisfaction was to be resolved.
I suspect she concluded I was a first-class arsehole (and she would have been right). No wonder my relationship with her was never the same again.
Fairness is an issue in any and every workplace. I doubt any sane person wants to work in an unfair workplace.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest barrier inhibiting the perception of organisational fairness is the time spent by managers with their direct reports.
Various studies appear to demonstrate the linear relationship between the amount of time spent by the manager with subordinates and the employees’ perceptions of fairness.
Critical in managers consistently investing this time with their subordinates is the importance of having an organisational culture of fairness. When managers receive positive feedback for investing their time with employees they (no surprise) continue to invest this time.
There are significant benefits to having a workplace that employees perceived as a fair one.
Sherf and his co-authors assert that extensive research finds that employees who feel fairly treated are better performers, helpful to colleagues, more committed to their workgroups and the organisation, and less likely to steal or be rude to others.
Remote work potentially presents a significant challenge for the issue or workplace fairness because many of the things that impact the perception of fairness are out of sight.
Working remotely employees don’t observe, hear, or hear about their colleagues doing their job, and the way their manager interacts with their colleagues, in the same way they do in the office.
There’s a risk that employees draw on a much smaller sample size of information in coming to a, potentially inaccurate, conclusion about organisational fairness.
This puts even greater importance on a manager investing time with remote employees and being mindful of the four aspects of fairness in communicating any workplace decision.
It took me being an arsehole to fully appreciate the importance of workplace fairness; don’t let the same happen to you.