The importance of treating employees fairly


Few things affect people more negatively than the feeling of being unfairly treated and anyone who has seen children divide a piece of cake between themselves can see that it is the millimetre justice that matters. This is deeply rooted in our genes and is strongly linked to our own self-esteem and our sense of how we are perceived and respected by persons around us and what place we have in the social hierarchy.

The brain’s reward system is stimulated by the feeling of being appreciated and treated fairly, whereas the opposite instead triggers discomfort from those parts of the brain that are otherwise activated by nausea and unpleasant smells.

A classical psychological experiment involves two subjects (A and B). In the experiment, A gets a sum of money to share with B. A decides unilaterally how much B will get and if B accepts, both could keep the money. But if B does not accept the offer, both will lose their share of the money. Repeated such experiments have shown that at an offered share of less than 20-30%, the perceived injustice is so high that B would rather refrain from the money in order to punish the unfair behaviour of A.

If the original sum is say $ 4, B would be happy to accept an offer of $ 2, but if the original amount is $ 10 then the response in most cases would be that B does not accept and none of them will get any money.

Tabibna Golnaz and co-workers at the University of California Los Angeles has taken this experiment one step further and demonstrated that the activation of the brain’s reward centre in subject B is independent of the total amount of remuneration, but directly correlated to the fairness of the offer.

The described discomfort when we feel unfairly treated is the same as occurs when we are in situations of relative inferiority. As humans it is much easier for us to accept poverty if everyone else is poor compared to being wealthy if those around us are even wealthier.

As a manager and leader, it is therefore important that you are constantly aware of the devastating negative power that occurs when employees do not feel treated fairly and not appreciated according to their achievements. This applies not only to monetary and other rewards, but also to the extent to which the different employees get your attention and access to your time.

It’s human to feel more comfortable with some people than others, especially if they confirm yourself, but if the surroundings get the impression that you are playing favourites, it will bring jealousy and negative feelings.

It is therefore important that you consciously scrutinize your own attitude towards your various employees and resist the impulse of paying more attention to those you like most. Appreciation, rewards and promotion should therefore be governed entirely by staff performance, including their behaviours towards each other and external customers and stakeholders.

In addition to a better mood in the workplace, a fair assessment will also be a guarantee that it is the most talented employees that can make a career, not the ones excelling in flattering their superiors. Be especially observant on the more introverted employees, who may not be so good at “selling” themselves, but nevertheless can make an outstanding effort. Also, be aware that the most creative employees often are perceived as “difficult” as they, by virtue of their own ideas, often question the current order.

History has repeatedly shown how much more dynamic meritocratic societies are compared to communities where services are added after birth, family ties, population, gender, etc.

Source: Tabibnia G, Satpute AB, Leiberman MD (2008).The sunny side of fairness: preference for fairness activates reward circuitry (and disregarding unfairness activates self-control circuitry). Psychological Science. 19:339–47.

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Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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