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The Fight for Fairness in the Workplace

How leaders can institute greater employee engagement and workplace equity.

Key points

  • The perception of unfairness in the workplace not only impacts team morale but can also affect a business’s bottom line.
  • A company's DEI efforts need to address equity in its own hiring, training, recruitment, and development, not just pledge to make donations.
  • Creating a workplace culture of fairness partly requires following the data and quantifying efforts rather than relying on instinct.

I recently led a panel discussion to discuss the challenge of advancing equity, improving workplace fairness, and strengthening employee engagement. The participants shared insights regarding how to effectively move the needle on everything from reducing unconscious bias to instituting robust diversity, equity, and inclusion policies.

I was very pleased to join two distinguished leaders in this discussion: Dr. Michelle Nario-Redmond, Professor of Psychology and Biomedical Humanities at Hiram College, and Ashley Innes, Regional Director for HIV Community Operations and North America Co-Lead for Pride Alliance at Gilead Sciences, Inc.

What exactly does fairness in the workplace look like?

It’s crucial that we have a common understanding of workplace fairness, as some psychologists argue that we are hard-wired to have adverse reactions to what we perceive as unfair behavior. Our emotional stage of empathy seems to kick in when we see others around us mistreated. To help level-set the discussion, the participants zeroed in on defining what exactly fairness in the workplace looks like.

As Dr. Nario-Redmond put it, “Fairness is really about treating employees impartially and, to the extent possible, without bias. We may all strive for objectivity, but sometimes stakeholders and managers have to employ subjective standards as well as fairness. And we know that these standards can be applied differently from person to person.”

She went on to describe the perception of unfairness as not only impacting team morale and producing “hurt feelings,” but affecting a business’s bottom line. “When people perceive that they've been treated unfairly, you lose a lot of hours in the workday by just people feeling hurt and talking about it at the watercooler instead of working on what they should be working on.”

Our discussion noted a common misperception that deeply resonated with me: the notion that achieving fairness in the workplace means applying one common set of standards to everyone. The truth is more complex.

As Dr. Nario-Redmond put it, “When we are evaluating employees or promotion or other kinds of opportunities … sometimes there are subjectivities involved when we consider how we judge people.”

Key takeaways for leaders

The discussion ultimately identified a few key takeaways for leaders in any sector seeking to institute greater fairness and organizational justice in the workplace.

  • Create safe forums for open discussion. Following the traumas of the COVID-19 era, as well as the outpouring of demands for racial justice in the wake of events like the murder of George Floyd, more organizations have committed to holding listening sessions and dialogues intended to give employees, including people of color, a constructive forum to share their perspectives.
  • Make sure your DEI efforts have real teeth to them. It’s not enough to pledge to make donations to good causes if organizations aren’t also carefully looking at how to best get their own house in order in regard to equity in their hiring, training, recruitment, and development practices.
  • Provide your teams with the support they need. Keep in mind that different groups of employees may have different concerns and equities as the workplace grows increasingly diverse. For example, Innes talked about organizations offering wellness credits: a certain amount of money each year that employees can put toward health and wellness needs, whether that’s physical or mental. As she pointed out, organizations might consider including credits within these programs for items like “maintaining hair,” given the greater amount of time potentially needed by many women of color for maintaining their desired hair styles.
  • Make mentoring a priority. As Dr. Natio-Redmond put it, having mentors in place can help professionals to better learn strategies for navigating organizational complexities from those who have walked in their shoes.

Our conversation closed with a reminder for leaders to be patient, be intentional, and hold themselves accountable to the strategies they outline. The more threatened we perceive ourselves to be by the threat of unfairness, the more likely it is that we put up boundaries to protect ourselves—and cut off meaningful conversations and dialogue.

Creating cultures that can foster fairness and dignity for all takes time—it’s a journey that doesn’t happen overnight. Ensuring that we get it right requires that we use objective measures, follow the data, and quantify our efforts rather than relying on instinct. We also owe it to stakeholders to be as transparent as possible in reporting on measures of fairness and inclusion and continuing to track our progress over time.