Consistency does not equal fairness.

Author:Calette, Bill

The concept of fairness has become more prominent in recent months in response to news of layoffs and bailouts attributed to the economic downturn. "What is deemed 'fair' has come under close scrutiny," says Columbia Business School Professor Joel Brockner in Columbia Ideas at Work, a business school newsletter. In an article titled "Fair Play in Tough Times," Brockner says, "Fairness matters. We know from research that firms that practice fairness benefit from higher levels of employee commitment and productivity."

In the following article, the authors, two business consultants, discuss the differences between fairness and consistency in dealing with employees. They also encourage firms to choose fairness over consistency, and they provide guidance for firms on moving to fairness with employees.

Joe Kraus, cofounder of the Web portal Excite. com, once said, "Nothing demotivates people like the equal treatment of unequals. When you hire a bozo and treat him the same as a rock star, it deflates the rock star."

We've all heard the workplace mantra "Whatever you do, ensure that employees are treated fairly and consistently." However, a dilemma can emerge for a manager when fair seems to collide with consistent, and someone has to figure out which way to swerve.

One day, Henry, the founder of a large corporation, walked apparently aimlessly through headquarters handing out $50 bills to long-service employees whom he recognized. Nothing particularly scientific or well planned, just a guy trying to recognize those who had served faithfully for many years. Fair enough.

Lou, the director of labor relations, pulled the offending founder aside and pointed out that he couldn't just walk around the office singling out employees for these on-the-spot bonuses. He'd need to give the same to everyone in order to be consistent because to do otherwise would reek of favoritism.

Henry's reaction was two sided. First, he reminded Lou of their respective positions in the food chain, and, second, he authorized the company's treasurer to provide Lou with enough cash to similarly reward, and therefore pacify, any employee who even dreamt of complaining about the disparate treatment. They were going to be consistent!

Was this practice fair? No. What's fair about rewarding a long-timer with $50 and then gifting the same amount to a newcomer simply because he or she may threaten to complain? What's fair about scoring all employees except the most egregiously poor performers at...

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