Staying silent about unfairness at work can seriously damage your health

Transparency is the new green

Fairness at work is a live issue for many people in employment. For example they want more transparency about what goes on.

Ethical leaders too want to create a fair culture. How to achieve this remains unclear.

Even the most well intentioned leader struggles to bring fairness to life. The latest CIPD report  tries to answer an ethical leader’s agonised plea: “Yes, but what does this actually mean?”

Take pensions for example. Fairness can mean giving people a decent one. Inequality may also exist between generations. Baby boomers for instance tend to have good pensions; yet their successors often pay more for far less.

The new CIPD study also reveals just how complicated the whole notion of fairness can be. From this rather opaque study, the answer is we view it through different lenses.

The report points to six different ones through which to judge fairness. For example it might be in terms of outcome, justice, capability, interpretation and so on. From a leader’s perspective yet more terminology and philosophy will not be welcome.

As far back as 1998 the UK government was arguing for more fairness at work as a good thing. In a new White Paper policy makers announced a new national aim to:

…develop a culture in all businesses and organisations in which fairness is second nature and underpins competitiveness. Such cultural change may lead to more positive relationships between employers and employees than the letter of the law can ever achieve. [1]

The varied nature of fairness shows how tricky this whole territory can be.—everything from the national minimum wage through to protection from unfair dismissal. Failure to complain at unfair treatment at work for example could be a death sentence.

Many men for instance, keep quiet and avoid confrontation. Yet those who refuse to stay silent can double their risk of dying from heart disease. You have a better chance of surviving by refusing to take inequity lying down. For example, by talking to the person with whom disagree, even getting angry with them. Dare to do this and you improve the chances of experiencing heart problems and even death. [2]

Avoid heart attack--fairness at work

Life itself is unfair sometimes and “fair” is such a vague term. Many people would say this is almost impossible to achieve. Maybe we must learn to live with it?

Studies into the real cost of unfairness at work though, blow a big hole in this argument. Staff leaving because of unfair treatment can cost mega bucks.

In 2007 for instance, the Fortune 500 companies paid over $60 billion due to unfair treatment. This included the cost of replacing them.  Ignoring this almost amounts to corporate negligence. [3]

Ethical leaders realise fairness underpins an ethical culture. To be hard-nosed about this, employees tend to be more committed and productive when treated fairly.

Fairness continues to become more complex and harder to manage. So many issues pose ethical dilemmas. For example, should any working person be without health insurance? Or employees leaving a job should do so with dignity. Or make every workplace as safe as possible.  The issues of global sourcing of work and problems of social mobility also complicate matters. [4]

Tips noteHere are 10 practical ways ethical leaders aim for more fairness at work:

1)  Promote transparency in how decisions are made—not merely which ones

2)  Remove obstacles to success that discriminate on the basis of age, sexuality, marital status and so on

3)  Ensure all employees are be treated with respect and honesty

4)  Design financial rewards and the pay check to be more transparent

5)  Offer clear routes for people to challenge decisions that affect them and their role

6)  Keep communicating the importance of fairness

7)  Deal with, rather than ignore transgressions of rules, values and other agreed behavioural norms

8)  Share stories often about fairness in action

9)  Reaffirm everyone will receive an equal opportunity to be recognized and promoted

10)  Model fairness towards others to make it visible

Andrew Leigh is author of Ethical Leadership, and writes on this at and a founding director of Maynard Leigh Associates.
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