Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Being seen to be fair


I love how my mind replays things from my past, triggered by a smell or a sound or a thought. Sometimes it seems random, like a photo album on shuffle. Sometimes though it’s like a mentor, nudging me and advising me with lessons learned in the past. One piece of advice it keeps reminding me of is from my law A-level: “Justice must not only be done, it must manifestly be seen to be done”. It’s a quote from a Law Lord about the process of fair trial, but in my opinion it applies everywhere. Not least, in the office.

A prime example of justice (fairness) is with employee benefits. Pay, bonuses, commission, holiday, maternity leave and sick pay. All these things and more, are given to employees in reward for the work they perform. Different people will receive different levels of reward based upon how long they have been at the company, the level of responsibility they undertake, the success with which they perform the role etc. That’s OK, because different reward for different people is normal. What’s not OK is where the principles used to calculate those rewards are changed to favour certain individuals without justification. If this happens, then employees will see that they are being treated unfairly and will be made unhappy.

Here are some warnings. When you allocate your time, make sure you don’t just allocate it to the loudest employees - Just because you’re in charge, doesn’t mean you can award yourself additional benefits - Think about people that don’t smoke when you’re writing policies for people who do - Consider people without kids when you’re giving benefits for people with kids. I know, it sounds like an impossible task. Well, getting it exactly right probably is an impossible task, but communicating clearly about why each decision has been made and how all parties have been considered, that is possible.

We have a Wiki at our company that holds all employment policies. This works well to keep things visible and fair. When we have to make a new decision for one employee, we do it by writing a policy for all employees. It doesn’t take long, but that little momentary pause for thought is just enough to ensure that the decision we finally make is seen to be fair.

It’s a difficult thing, fairness. It’s highly subjective, highly emotive, and the lack of it is often given as a reason for unhappiness. That’s why it needs to be at the front of a manager’s mind at all times, with all decisions, and all actions. On top of that, it’s not enough just to be fair, you must be seen to be fair. That means discussion, agreement, and communication. Do these things, and you should at least be able to argue that you were trying to be fair. What more can an employee ask from you?

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