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Training Process Fairness by Cathy Bolger

"Everyone knows that being fair costs little and pays off handsomely. Then why do so few executives manage to behave fairly, even though most want to?"Joel Brockner, Harvard Business Review, March 2006
Imagine two companies deciding that pay cuts are necessary for the survival of the company. At company A, a vice president called a brief meeting at the end of the work week and announced that the company would implement a 15 percent pay cut, across the board. Also, within the same fifteen minutes, he briefly explained the reasons for the mandatory pay cuts, and answered a few questions.

Company B implemented an identical pay cut, but in a different manner. The company president personally made the announcement to employees. He told them that other cost-saving options, such as layoffs, had been considered but that the pay cuts seemed to be the fairest choice. The president then took a full unhurried ninety minutes to address employees' questions and concerns and repeatedly expressed regret about needing to take this step.

Human Resources professor from Ohio State, Jerald Greenberg found that during the ten weeks following the unpopular announcements, employee theft was nearly eighty percent lower at the second plant than the first. In addition, the employees at Company B were 15 times less likely to resign.

Why the difference? The employees at Company B believed that they had been treated justly. The leaders of Company B had practiced process fairness. Process fairness doesn't ensure that employees get what they want. It means that employees feel they have a chance to be heard, listened to and respected.

There are three drivers of process fairness. They involve the amount of input requested from employees, the decision-making process and the behavior of the managers. First, how much input do the employees believe they have in the decision-making process? Are their opinions requested and given serious consideration? Is available information shared as soon as possible?

Second, for the actual decision-making, are decisions based on accurate information? Are the personal biases of the decision maker minimized? Is the decision-making process transparent—that is, are employees told how and why decisions are made, and what alternatives were considered?

The third factor in process fairness is how managers behave. Do they treat employees respectfully, actively listening to their concerns and empathizing with their points of view? Do they express regret when they understand there is a negative impact on employees?

Another example of process fairness relates to amount of work and work/life balance. When Rutgers Business School professor Phyllis Siegel and Joel Brokner, Professor of Business at Columbia Business School surveyed 300 employees from dozens of organizations, the results were surprising. They found that work/life conflict had no measurable effect on employees' commitment as long as managers provided good reasons for decisions and treated employees with dignity and respect.

Several studies show that fair-process training can make a big difference throughout the organization. Employees who reported to managers who had gone through fair-process training were significantly less likely to steal, less likely to resign, and were more likely to go the extra mile. Some impressive examples of going the extra mile include aiding a coworker who has been absent, helping orient new employees and willing to work overtime.

In summary, when employees believe they are being treated fairly-when they feel heard, when they understand how and why important decisions are made and when they believe they are respected, everyone benefits.

Cathy Bolger is a San Diego-based coach and trainer specializing in Presentation Skills, Meeting Skills and Conflict Management. She can be reached at 619-294-2511 or Cathy@CathyBolger.com.

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