How Do You Know If You Have a Fair Workplace?

Lack of information sharing is a key indicator of an unfair workplace.

A workplace, whether online or in-person, is an enigma. Salaries of an employee’s co-workers are usually a secret and you never know what may be brewing among decision-makers. There’s often a surprise deal around the corner that will result in an employee suddenly having a new, demanding project.

Lack of information sharing is a key indicator of an unfair workplace, according to a report in Harvard Business Review by Brian Kropp, Jessica Knight, and Jonah Shepp. While it’s highly unusual—virtually unheard of, actually—for salaries to be public, there’s a lot of other information that is not as hard to come by for some people. “… Gartner’s 2021 survey found only 33 percent of organizations practice information transparency. This approach leads to situations where information is unevenly shared. For instance, the same Gartner survey found that men are 6 percent more likely than women to be given preparatory materials in advance of an interview or assessment. This can exacerbate gender gaps in hiring, pay, and career progression,” the authors write.

Advance Notice

When information is shared in advance, it also gives those in the know the chance to express opinions and share ideas. If you know a deal that will result in a new assignment is in the works, you can point out to decision-makers why the project may pose difficulties or request additional support ahead of time. This allows you to be set up for success more than the person who, without warning, finds a new, difficult assignment dumped in their inbox and simply gets a due date and told to get started.

Indeed, I would add information sharing from employees to decision-makers as a common source of unfairness. For example, consider the following circumstance I ran into over the course of my career. There were two male advertising sales managers and one female. There was a meeting to discuss ideas for new editorial content in a publication for the next year. The male sales manager was invited to the meeting and the two females were not. The man got to share his ideas for future content and have an inside view of what was coming, which might give him ideas of what to start selling, while the women were not. Do you think the male employee benefited from the chance to share his ideas and have additional time to prepare for the new year of selling? He got a head start in the race.

Levels of Employee Support

The level of support employees receive for their work also can be unevenly distributed. The authors highlight employee support as a key dimension of workplace fairness. I have seen instances in which the one male employee in a group was given a full-time, mid-level employee to work under him while one of his female colleagues (with more work) was given an entry-level employee and the other female colleague (also with more work than him) was given no junior employee at all.

HR/L&D Presence

Having a Human Resources and/or Learning and Development (L&D) professional embedded in each department would be a tremendous help. However, this is a luxury that is not possible in small organizations with limited resources. And in larger organizations, there might be pushback from decision-makers. Some might not want to have an HR or L&D professional as part of the team. Cynically, I believe this is for the precise reason that they don’t want to be monitored and held accountable for fairness. They want the liberty to be unfair.

If you have an HR/L&D professional in meetings and planning sessions, it may become harder for unfairness to occur. There would be an additional set of eyes and ears to point out inconsistencies such as uneven access to meetings and information sharing.

That said, you don’t want employees and their managers to feel stifled in how they express themselves due to the presence of a perceived outsider. That’s why an HR/L&D professional who is not already considered a part of the group could have an adverse impact on a meeting. Therefore, it’s important for that professional to be presented as a part of the group from day one—an integral member of the team.

The presence of someone who was trained to be a keen observer of interpersonal dynamics in the workplace provides a voice that can speak up and point out to decision-makers that unfairness is occurring. You need a person in the room who can point out all the people who are NOT in the room, but should be.

Do you think about and assess fairness in your organization? If so, how do you do it?