This can be such an innocuous word when taken in a simple context.  For instance, we frequently speak of fair-weather, the county fair, fair game, turnabout is fair play, one’s fair share, and my favorite, fair to middlin’.  All are common phrases that are easily recognizable and understood.  Our understanding, and acceptance, takes a detour, however, when we use the word fair in relationship to our business principles.  Even though the concept of fairness can be more closely related to art than science, when it comes to the administration of our office practices, we owe it to our employees to at least be cognizant of the inherent pitfalls surrounding this word.  The consequences of ignoring the powerful impact of inequity can be catastrophic to your goals, morale, and your overall success as an organization.

Fairness is not a mandatory concept and can be very illusive. Very few work comparisons lend themselves to the phrase “all things being equal.”  If that were the case then the easy, painless approach would be to apply the same reward to each circumstance.  In the real world, however, there are many variables to consider.  Those variables constitute the difference between staffers giving an 85% effort and a 110% effort.  Very few staffers with the same title, and the same size office, also have the same background, tenure with the company or same professional experience.  The question becomes, what measures do you use that would allow you to evaluate them on an equal basis?  Don’t think too hard because it’s a trick question.  There is no perfect tool that would provide a repeatable, equitable solution.  Be especially cautious with this if you function in an entrepreneurial environment with fewer checks and balances.  If you are the sole decision maker for distributions of salaries, bonuses and benefits, it is pretty easy to convince yourself that you are fairness personified.  Don’t believe your own press.  We are all guilty of relying too much upon convenience, past history and sabermetrics (baseball  reference), rather than going through the painstaking process of evaluating each position and staffer on their merits and on actual performance.

Also, although salary leads the way, it isn’t the end-all in reference to fairness.  In fact, it is only one consideration among the plethora of items that should be considered for review.  You might not have considered items like, who gets publicly destroyed each time they make an error, as opposed to others that quietly get a private e-mail.  A popular item now, especially in the northeast, would be, who gets to work from home on a snow day and who has to take a vacation day for the same snow storm.

Next, having broached all of these possible issues, I am really asking for you to have an open mind about inequity and to develop an acknowledgement that it constantly exists all around us.  There aren’t any easy answers.  In fact, it’s possible to resolve one inequity only to find that you have opened the door to another.  Although admittedly not a total solution, one helpful approach would be to take the Ed Koch approach to your business environment.  You need to know how you’re doing with respect to important employee issues.  That’s different from how you think you’re doing.  Take the guess work out of the equation.  At the very least you need to include “Fairness Issues” as general topics on the agenda in your next communication with your HR Department.  If you don’t have one, then you need to be proactive about addressing those issues with your staff.  Addressing fairness issues requires action.  You can’t obtain fairness by waiting for it to walk through the front door or draft the e-mails to your staff for you.  It’s just not that simple.

Finally, just in case you haven’t accepted the gravamen of fairness within your organization, I offer this.  It’s good for business, or at least it can be.  Remember the Western Electric study from some years ago (1924-32).  The premise was that a well lit work environment was essential to higher productivity in an industrial plant environment.  They commissioned a study in one of their plants (Hawthorne Works) and hired a consulting firm to monitor the study and report the results.  They started with a maximum lighted environment and then reduced the lighting at certain intervals.  The results were astounding.  Each time they lowered the lighting, productivity went up.  In fact, productivity was at its highest when there was barely enough light to be considered safe.

As it turned out, the process of commissioning and conducting the study required routine consultation and meetings with employees.  The resulting heightened interaction with employees resulted in them feeling special and reinforced that the company cared about  issues that were very important to them.  The actual level of lighting became secondary.   All I am suggesting is that addressing issues related to fairness can be the road map to better productivity, higher morale and stronger teamwork. You may never achieve fairness nirvana, but you can certainly reap many ancillary benefits along the way.

Give it a try!

Lewis Parham