Inequality isn't bothering you. It's fairness.
Updated: May 26
One moment vastly changed my perspective on fairness.
While discussing the wealth inequality in San Francisco and how much it bothered my peers at a conference lunch, Dr. Robert Cialdini — one of the most respected behavioural scientists, founder of Influence at Work, and the conference’s keynote speaker — happened to be seated next to me. He said: “It’s not inequality that bothers people,” he said. “It’s a lack of fairness.”
The clearest visual demonstration of how a lack of fairness contributes to inequality was beautifully illustrated with a video of high school students about to run a race. Before the race begins, they are asked to take a step forward if they have both parents still married. If they grew up with a father figure in the home. If they’ve never had to worry about where their next meal would come from. The questions continue. And, when the questions are finished, questions all predisposed to those with advantage and privilege, the kids are asked to run the race. Who do you think wins?
COVID has highlighted inequality on a more immediate and visceral level. Those with the luxury to work from home face less exposure to a deadly disease, and those without the luxury to work from home put themselves at risk every day. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer spring update states that 64% agree with the following statement: This pandemic has made me realize how big the gap in this country is between the rich and the working class, and that something must be done to more fairly distribute our country’s wealth and prosperity. A further 67% believe those with less resources are being unfairly burdened.
What’s more, researchers found that significant fairness issues arise between remote and non-remote workers[i].
So what does this mean for employers?
You absolutely better factor fairness into your return to work plans as lockdown restrictions ease. Here are several points for consideration:
First, motive matters. Employees will make up their own minds about the reasons behind their supervisor or employer’s actions, even the fair ones. (We all get suspicious sometimes). And these beliefs about underlying motives can impact how these actions are received by employees. So, is the fair treatment because the employer thinks it’s the right thing to do? Because a supervisor is maintaining his or her own image? Because the company wants compliance so they can better perform? These different motive attributions can impact performance.
Second, ‘fairness’ can sometimes be perceived as handing out either punishment or reward. Think back to when you were a kid in school, and someone got a treat as a reward. But it’s not fair, you thought. Why did they get that? Are some of your decisions around return to work unintentionally rewarding some part of your workforce while harming another?
Third, your choices can alter the social contract you have with employees. If someone feels something is unfair, they are likely to reciprocate in turn. It’s an exchange, after all. If the exchange feels unfair, this reciprocal behaviour could manifest as a decrease in engagement or willingness to perform. Be prepared for trust to take a hit, if the exchange is perceived as unfair.
Fourth, consider the increase or decrease in behaviours you might see as a result of fair or unfair behaviour. These include cooperation, reciprocation (as mentioned above), engagement, emotion-driven behaviour and other work critical interactions. With decisions that feel unfair, you might see a lack of cooperation, a drop in performance, a decrease in trust, lashing out at colleagues or superiors, and more.
There are many considerations with returning to work that employers will have to make; managing perceptions of fairness is just one. Drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to discuss others.
For two great overviews of fairness in the context of employee-employer relations, I suggest:
Colquitt, J., & Zipay, K. (2015). Justice, Fairness, and Employee Reactions. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2(1), 75-99.
Matta, F., Sabey, T., Scott, B., Lin, S., & Koopman, J. (2020). Not All Fairness Is Created Equal: A Study of Employee Attributions of Supervisor Justice Motives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(3), 274-293.
[i] Thatcher S, Bagger J. 2011. Working in pajamas: telecommuting, unfairness sources, and unfairness perceptions. Negot. Confl. Manag. Res.4:248–76