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Seeking and finding fairness at work

Businessman consulting woman coworker

Imagine this: As a manager, you’ve got a challenging project you need to delegate to a direct report. You assign it to a top performer, confident that they will do a great job with it and that it will help their career because it will give them more exposure to other parts of the business.

Will your employee feel the tough assignment is a sign of your trust in them – or will they view it as you unfairly saddling them with extra work? Do you know? Has the question even occurred to you?

Most managers don’t set out to be unfair to those they supervise. Nonetheless, many employees can recount stories of being treated unfairly. For women and members of minority groups, the question carries additional importance, as unfair treatment could be a sign of subtle discrimination and bias within the organization – even when it is unintentional.

Examining common obstacles to fairness and tactics managers can use to be fair are the subject of research by Elad Sherf, an organizational behavior professor at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

He worked with Ravi Gajendran of Florida International University and Barry Posner of Santa Clara University and they published their finding in “Seeking and Finding Justice: Why and When Managers’ Feedback Seeking Enhances Justice Enactment” in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

The impact of fairness

For managers and organizations, perceptions of fairness at work — what scholars call organizational justice — can have bottom-line impact.  Research has established that when employees feel they’re treated fairly at work, they have more positive attitudes toward work, perform better, and are better teammates and colleagues.

No manager wants to be perceived as unfair, and no employee wants to be treated unfairly, but Sherf and his co-authors point out that treating people fairly on a consistent basis is difficult.

First, managers are busy and their priorities often focus on things such as financial outcomes and strategic projects. Remembering to consider perceptions of fairness can be tough in the day-to-day busyness of business.

Second, it can be hard to know whether a decision will be perceived as fair or unfair by a particular employee. Is that challenging project an extra burden on a busy, proven high performer, or an opportunity for professional growth? Understanding how an employee thinks can help managers communicate their decisions in a way that ensures employees understand the true intent behind them.

The role of feedback seeking

Given those difficulties, Sherf and his colleagues posited that managers who regularly seek feedback from their direct reports are able to act in ways that employees perceive as fairer. They conducted three studies to explore this idea.

In one study, they analyzed data about 8,706 managers at a company that helps firms and managers assess their leadership. They found that managers who sought feedback more often were also more likely to report treating employees in ways associated with fairness. They replicated their findings with an additional study which surveyed 181 manager-employee pairs.

Finally, in a third study, Sherf and his co-authors surveyed 196 managers four times over a period of roughly 10 weeks. Here again, managers who sought feedback were more likely to behave in ways consistent with treating employees fairly. This study also established that managers who sought feedback more often also gave more attention to the goal of treating employees fairly and reported regularly learning more about their employees’ needs and preferences. This knowledge enabled them to act towards employees in ways that were more likely to be seen as fair.

Links to diversity and inclusion

Though diversity and inclusion weren’t directly addressed in the studies, the ideas in the research likely have relevance for organizations that want to create more representative and inclusive cultures, says Sherf.

“Seeking feedback regularly is very relevant for issues of inclusion as well as more subtle or hidden forms of racial and gender discrimination,” he says.

Often, the problems arise from unconscious and unintentional behaviors or just lack of information.

“People are behaving in ways that they’re unaware of, that are being perceived as offensive by those who are different from them,” he adds.

“Without more feedback exchanges, it would be hard for those in authority positions to change and improve,” he says. “We want people to be able to point out behaviors that might be seen as unfair or problematic. Yet, we can’t expect employees to provide feedback without encouragement and assurance of psychological safety. This is where proactively seeking feedback comes in.”

Key takeaways

For both managers and organizations, the research demonstrates that to improve fairness it is critical to seek feedback from employees, use that feedback in decisions, and deliberately factor fairness into decisions.

Leaders who want to treat employees more fairly, should regularly seek feedback from employees, including feedback on their performance as managers and information about how different employees perceive the fairness of their actions and decisions.

Organizations should understand that one-on-one feedback between managers and employers is a key ingredient to creating a culture that workers feel is just and inclusive — and critical to the performance gains that come when employees feel they’re being listened to and treated fairly.