Assessing Your Fairness as a Manager
Your direct reports assess the fairness of many aspects of their jobs. They evaluate whether they're being paid a fair wage, whether their benefits measure up to those of their peers, and whether the business culture supports their moral and ethical views. In the day-to-day work environment, they assess fairness in their workloads, interactions with coworkers, opportunities for advancement, and relationships with managers.
Treating direct reports fairly means being equitable in both the practical and emotional aspects of how you treat people, handle information, and apply standards. These are three key areas you need to consider when assessing your fairness as a manager.
Dealing with people
The first key area of consideration is dealing fairly with people and groups. Being fair isn't about equalizing or eliminating differences among your direct reports, but rather about responding to the needs and aspirations of individuals. As a manager, you need to identify any unfair behavior patterns you may have. This is important in your quest to make sure you're recognizing and rewarding direct reports fairly.
The first part of dealing with people fairly is to identify your own behavior patterns. This can be challenging because, like anyone else, you're subject to personal, intellectual, and cultural influences that shape how you think and act. And it's natural for people to be drawn toward others with shared values and characteristics. Sometimes these preferences can take the form of favoritism and bias. It's important that you're able to understand and assess how your own influences guide the many choices and decisions required to manage people fairly. As a manager, you need to be aware of attitudes and behaviors – including bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and labeling - that influence how you deal with people.
The second part of dealing with people fairly is to make sure you're recognizing and rewarding direct reports fairly. Recognizing and rewarding direct reports fairly means treating them in an appropriate manner that provides them with the motivation to perform.
Being fair isn't necessarily about being equal. Fair managers take into account differences in the characteristics, abilities, and circumstances of their direct reports. Fairness means making people feel as if they've been rewarded in line with the effort they've put in and the circumstances of the situation.
Great managers have skills for being understood and for understanding others. When you manage direct reports, handling information fairly is crucial in building an environment where instructions and intent are clear and easily understood.
The ability of your direct reports to function and be productive in their work is a result of how well you communicate, interact, and exchange information with them. One of the more common complaints of direct reports is that their managers don't communicate well. They may complain that information was kept from them, that they were shut down or ignored in meetings, that important information was distributed unfairly, or that they had no input into decisions.
Communicating messages fairly entails explaining the reasoning or purpose behind your decisions. Don't be too directive or dictatorial in tone when you're communicating decisions. Instead, be sure to be polite and respectful - the way you expect your direct reports to communicate with you. And be careful not to alienate direct reports by selectively distributing information.
When you're planning a meeting to communicate an issue, make sure you include all employees that will be affected. Keep communication neutral. No one should be able to tell your personal feelings toward any one of the meeting participants. Make sure that each meeting participant has been provided with the information needed to participate in discussions and decision-making.
It's also important to be sensitive to cultural and personality differences that may affect participation in meetings. Diversity in language, culture, and etiquette may lead to differences in the way your direct reports participate. Ask the quiet or reserved ones for their opinions, or ask them if they would prefer to provide you with notes after the meeting. Keep control over the more assertive meeting participants and prevent them from dominating the discussion.
When employees believe they're being treated fairly – when they understand how and why important decisions are made, and feel they've been listened to and respected – they're more likely to respond positively. This is particularly important if you are faced with communicating serious, or even catastrophic, news.
It's a fact of business that sometimes managers have to deliver bad news to their direct reports. Perhaps an expected bonus hasn't materialized or a promotion hasn't come through. Or maybe a performance review is less than stellar. At worst, direct reports may be facing lay-offs or downsizing.
It isn't necessarily true that employees perceive bad news as unfair. If you're faced with communicating bad news to your direct reports, your primary goal will be to retain their goodwill and trust. Be open and honest when you present the news. Make sure to explain the logic behind the decision. Be available to answer questions, and, if possible, provide the direct reports with a path for improving the situation. In the end, if direct reports feel they've been treated fairly, they'll be more likely to perceive the situation as fair and work with you toward a resolution.
The third key area of consideration when assessing your fairness as a manager is the way you apply standards. It's a good manager's responsibility to create a workplace environment where direct reports feel fairly treated. But when defining or applying workplace standards, some managers fall into the trap of believing that there's only one way in which job duties can be effectively performed. They fail to take into account the diverse ways in which work can be accomplished.
In a well-ordered workplace, managers' assessments of direct reports begin long before any work is performed. They use job descriptions, policy manuals, and employee handbooks to understand performance standards, the scope and level of these standards, and the context in which they are to be met. But while strict work standards may be important for work areas involving finance, security, and safety, they don't work as well when you're applying fairness to your direct reports in a typical workplace.
Many organizations encourage a business culture that encompasses different social, cultural, and demographic groups. If your standards include objective criteria for reaching decisions amicably and efficiently, and for rewarding people fairly, it's more likely your decisions will be accepted.
When given equal opportunity, equal performance is the desired result. But accepting people's differences and allowing flexibility in interpreting work standards doesn't mean making excuses for poor or unproductive behavior. You shouldn't excuse a negative behavior in one direct report that you wouldn't accept from another. Treating one person especially favorably will be perceived to be just as unfair as treating someone harshly.
Ultimately, each of your direct reports will decide for themselves whether you've treated them fairly. But by assessing your behavior in three key areas you'll increase your awareness of how to treat direct reports fairly. First, you need to consider how you deal with people, taking into account cultural and other personal characteristics and identifying any negative behavior patterns you may have. You also need to consider fairness in handling information – how to communicate fairly and how to present information without alienating your direct reports. And finally, you need to consider how you apply standards.