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Four Ways to Foster Fairness in the Workplace

Focusing on transparency and frequent communication can reduce employee concerns and help improve productivity.

How many times have you heard someone say, "That's not fair"? If you're a parent, then probably more times than you can count. If you're a business leader, then probably only slightly fewer times.

Employee concerns over pay systems, managerial favoritism and equal recognition are common leadership challenges. While leaders of some of the best small workplaces struggle with fairness issues just like their corporate counterparts, we've found that they often achieve more favorable results among their staffs nearly 10 percent more often. This greater success is the result of thoughtful and comprehensive management approaches. To help your organization strengthen its own tactics, here are a few lessons to consider:

Reaffirm that everyone will receive an equal opportunity to be recognized. One of the fastest ways to erode a workplace's sense of fairness is by giving recognition unequally. This challenge can be especially difficult when managing employees across multiple sites. When McMurry, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based full-service marketing communications company, acquired a second site, leaders were faced with how to adapt their annual employee awards event in order to promote fairness. The company's leaders doubled up, dividing the event into two presentations -- one at each site held in successive weeks. The events were coordinated so that when one location held its event, a simultaneous celebration was held in the other.

Create a sense that promotions are handled fairly. When an employee complains that a co-worker's promotion wasn't fair, his or her underlying question might actually be, "Why wasn't I promoted?" The best organizations address this by ensuring all employees receive frequent, constructive feedback and by providing personal support in professional development. Employees at Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner & Hottman, a Denver-based accounting firm, receive feedback at least once every month, if not at the end of every client engagement. To ensure this experience feels balanced, employees also have the opportunity to give upward feedback to their manager on the client engagement.

In addition, all of the firm's professionals have a coach that is typically a level above them. Coaches meet regularly with their advisees to provide one-on-one feedback and discuss what issues and goals the advisee may have. These coaches also partner with employees to develop personal and professional development goals with action steps to achieve them.

Add transparency and a commitment to equity to the paycheck. When it comes to a sense of fair pay, it's not just about the amount of the paycheck that matters. The transparency of the compensation system and a clear commitment to equity by the organization are critical in ensuring people feel fairly paid. To create transparency, the human-resources department at Johnson & Johnson, a 125-person insurance company based in Charleston, S.C., constructs a total compensation document, known as "Investment Statements," for each employee annually. These documents communicate each employee's total compensation, including items such as base salary, bonus, medical coverage, paid time off and several other factors.

Partners at Tucson, Ariz.-based accounting firm Heinfeld, Meech & Co. meet annually for a daylong process of reviewing a detailed list of all salaries and proposed raises and bonuses for all of the company's 85 employees. After making sure salaries are fair compared to industry and geographical benchmarks, the partners make changes to individual employee's salaries and bonuses to ensure internal fairness between offices and job roles.

Offer a fair appeals process. It is critical for employees to understand that they have a fair opportunity to have grievances heard by management. Parkway Properties, a Jackson, Miss.-based commercial real estate services firm, offers what it calls an Employee Advocate program. Complemented by an open door policy for all leaders and several upward feedback mechanisms, this program allows team members the opportunity to voice concerns or constructive criticisms to an employee outside of his or her regular communication channel. These questions are directed to the company's executive officers and are shared only with them, the senior vice president of the "People Department" and the chief executive. Then, "Employee Advocates" schedule regular visits at each of the company's locations, ensuring team members have reliable opportunities to air a grievance.

Workplace concerns about fairness are challenging for any business and can be frustrating for employees and leaders alike. Focusing on transparency and frequent communication can cut down these concerns, allowing everyone to focus on more rewarding and productive responsibilities.
 

Marcus Erb is a senior research partner and senior consultant with the Great Place to Work® Institute. He focuses on the financial services, manufacturing and health care industries.
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