Give fairness a chance
Winslow Wong 

Growing up, I often heard adults saying life isn’t always fair, and it stuck with me into adulthood. So, when I started working, it didn’t surprise me when I saw all manner of injustice in life, specifically at work. I too had suffered my fair (or unfair) share of workplace injustices. Once I went home early with a raging headache and a dull thumping in my chest because of what I had to deal with – taking orders from four persons, three of whom had no direct reporting authority over me, at least from what I inferred from the company’s organisational chart.

Workplace injustices exist in almost every organisation. They refer to any form of unfair treatment of employees or actions that result from bad management practices, including failure to follow rules, regulations, processes and procedures. Employees generally view workplace injustices negatively because they’re associated with undesirable things like favouritism, discrimination, harassment and bullying. Business owners and management should never treat such injustices lightly as they can cause employee resentment and even significant psychological distress.

I believe fairness is smart management. As a manager, you should not only be fair but seen to be fair in what you do and say. Treat every team member with respect and in a fair and open manner. One common injustice often cited by employees is favouritism. While it’s natural for you to like certain individuals more than others, treating direct reports differently – and especially playing favourites – is unwise and unfair. No matter how fair you think you are, when you favour one employee over another, staff morale and productivity suffer. The danger is that you’re laying a foundation for creating a dysfunctional team, which will eventually reflect badly on your leadership – or the lack of it.

This reminds me of an ex-colleague who headed a team of bright professionals. I saw potential in him, but I noticed he had a flaw – playing favourites. He clearly showed his fondness for a team member whom he openly hailed him as the company’s “shining star”. He regularly heaped public praises on him and ensured he was involved in the most visible and important projects.

Needless to say, he got the best appraisal and salary increment. In fact, word got around that he earned more than a few senior guys. This star treatment created hard feelings with other team members and also colleagues in other departments, which badly affected staff morale and productivity. Instead of attracting talent, the department head struggled to retain people on his team. Staff turnover was particularly higher than other departments. And the sad part was, the “shining star” left the team, which was a big blow to his boss who had groomed him the past three years to lead a sub-team. I guess the moral is you can never buy loyalty or respect.

Blatant favouritism of one or two star employees can lower overall staff morale as other good employees – who may not be their bosses’ favourites for whatever reasons – are likely to perceive it as injustice. If not handled well, the situation can turn explosive, especially when supposedly confidential information leaks out that those “shining stars” enjoy better pay and extra perks than other employees who may perceive their hard work often goes unnoticed and unrewarded. This form of injustice can make such unrecognised performers feel neglected and unmotivated. Playing favourites is not only detrimental to a healthy and productive workplace, but it may have a lasting effect on your organisation’s hiring efforts and reputation in both the specific industry and the public eye.

While it’s important to reward high-performing employees to motivate and retain talent, organisations need to be careful when allocating monetary and other rewards to avoid playing favourites with some employees. Adopt a fair reward structure which provides incentive to deserving employees. The structure must adhere to a transparent framework which is practised by all managers and understood by every employee. A lack of structure gives room for favouritism, discrimination and other forms of biases to take root in your workplace, which can impact not only staff morale and productivity, but also your organisation’s culture and bottom line.

Besides unfair bestowing of salaries, bonuses, perks and promotions, favouritism can manifest in more subtle ways which can be just as frustrating to employees and detrimental to organisations. Some bosses, intentionally or unintentionally, look the other way when their pet employees don’t follow dress code, take long lunch breaks or leave the office earlier than others. Although some of these may seem like trivial issues from the bosses’ perspective, “sidelined” employees may perceive them as serious forms of injustice.

Another common injustice is supersession which arises when employees who qualify or satisfy the requirements for promotion, and having the requisite qualifications and experience, are overlooked or bypassed for promotion. Supersession is a form of victimisation or discrimination for whatever reasons, real or perceived.

Supersession is typically a calculated act that leads to potential discord, which can result in protest or industrial action by other workers in support of an aggrieved colleague. Such injustice tends to often contribute to loss of trust and confidence in the management, and may be considered a breach of procedural justice with serious legal implications.

Recently, a senior public servant in a foreign country, who was bypassed for promotion to four different offices over a two-year period, won a legal suit against the Public Service Commission (PSC). The appeal court ruled she was unfairly treated and was entitled to compensation for loss of earnings, distress and inconvenience.

Workplace injustices

Employees are less likely to complain about workplace injustices if they’re treated in a polite manner, with dignity and respect, and experience candid two-way communication with others and the management, enjoy the benefit of having procedures thoroughly explained to them, and where and when required are offered reasonable explanations on procedures and issues.

One practical way to guard against playing favourites is to think inclusively, rather than exclusively, when assigning tasks and projects. I find this very useful because it helps me make a conscious effort to delegate work in a fair and equitable way. Even simple things like rotating who leads the weekly team meeting can help project fairness. Hold yourself accountable and keep track of what you’re delegated.

Get candid input from others, preferably someone who regularly works with your team. Ask one or two colleagues from another department to sit in on one of your team meetings and give you feedback on where you’re focusing your energy and attention. Sometimes it helps to have an outsider’s perspective.

Workers generally intend to love their jobs, embrace their workplace culture and work happily ever after. However, many are just seeking fairness at work. Adapting the title of John Lennon’s iconic peace song, Let’s give fairness a chance!

Winslow Wong is a corporate trainer and communications consultant. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 248.