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The case against being fair in the workplace

Apr 26, 2022
Deb Muller

“Let me tell you what fair means. Fair means that one side got what they wanted in a way the other side can’t complain about. There’s no such thing as fair.”  – John Dutton (Yellowstone. Season 4 Episode 9)

When I heard this line during an episode of Yellowstone, it hit me hard. It also triggered an unexpected, introspective journey about the work I’ve been doing for decades. shutterstock_2079544540

In the world of employee relations, we’ve applauded ourselves for years for being fair. By definition, fair means ‘conforming with established rules.” But the truth is, while being fair makes it easy for us to check clear cut process and policy boxes, it doesn’t leave room to check the ‘emotional gray areas’ that come with all humans.

Let’s face it – an evolving society has always led changes in the rule of law. That’s why it’s not uncommon to find established rules that were once considered fair now creating unanticipated consequences. As a result, fairness can quickly become subjective and well…unfair.

Protecting our employee relations decisions behind the “fair wall” makes it too easy to convince ourselves we are doing the right thing. But are we really? Or is “being fair” just a lazy take on complex human issues? In my opinion, sometimes it is.

That being said, there are times when we’re in uncharted territory and doing our best to be fair might be the only logical place from which we can make a good decision. For example, when the pandemic hit us all in March of 2020, many organizations had to make fast decisions around which roles could successfully ‘work remote’ and which roles had to remain on premise. The reality is some work just doesn’t translate remotely. In this instance, determining what was fair had much less to do with personal circumstances and a lot more to do with logistics. Perhaps some employees didn’t like the outcome, but one could agree it was “fair.”

Unfortunately, as we look back on which groups were most impacted by these decisions, we’re confronted with a disturbing reality. More underrepresented people, including women and people of color, hold the majority of the ‘essential or on premise’ work. As a result, they were disproportionately exposed to Covid. So was that ‘fair’? Maybe not – but what was the alternative?

The alternative of equal representation in these roles wasn’t something we could execute mid-pandemic. It would have been (and needs to be) the positive outcome of systemic change. If we had done the hard work earlier, women and minorities wouldn’t have been the majority of people in these roles to begin with.  The big lesson here is that when you haven’t taken the time to do the hard work that allows equity, your default option is fair.

So what’s the next layer of decision support when being “fair” creates negative consequences for someone? One layer deeper than fair is the notion of being equal.

Let’s discuss the new regulations in many (and increasing) states that no longer allow you to ask for current salary during the recruiting process.  Here is a great example of changing the rules to drive “equal.” In all transparency, I don’t love the regulation because it makes it harder to figure out job offers, but I absolutely respect how it forces us to be equal. Previously we might have thought we were being fair…”she should be thrilled with this increase in salary from what she was making before.” But if the woman was underpaid relative to men for the same job, fair is a flop. In this instance, equality beats fairness hands down.

As I let John Dutton’s quote sink in, I got more uncomfortable. I started realizing that not only is “being fair” not enough, “keeping things equal” isn’t either. Too many traditional HR policies quietly undermine our progress. If we want to create an uplifting work environment that gives everyone an opportunity to bring their best every day, we have to go even deeper and ask ourselves is it equitable? In the workplace, equity is about recognizing that each employee has varying access to resources and privileges. It’s about making sure that those with less access get the support they need in order to take fair advantage of opportunities within the company.

So how does this play out in the work environment? One way is with regard to job requirements. Does it feel equitable to still require college degrees for higher-paying roles? Why are we ok with letting organizations limit candidate pools to legacy schools? Why are we systematically cool with ignoring talented people because they can’t afford an expensive degree or whose circumstances take them in different directions? (I would argue that some of these people just made the brilliant decision to stay out of debt.) Equitable decisions around hiring and promoting talent should be made based on transferable skills, not exclusive internships and alma maters.

Like it or not, our challenge as ER leaders is not unlike John Dutton’s. He is forced to strike a balance between family man and cold, hard tough guy who wants to save his ranch. (I’ll admit, Dutton’s practices may be a bit out of bounds for a corporate setting, but who wouldn’t want Kevin Costner as a team mate?) These days fair will typically be the easy way out of hard work. If we want to move ER from transactional to transformational, we are going to have to get uncomfortable and expect more from ourselves. Stop being fair, question what’s equal and strive for equity.  It’s time to stop checking boxes and embrace compassionate, common sense decision making.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.