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Professor Paul Sparrow
Director Centre for Peformance Led HR
Professor Paul  Sparrow

Can organisations ever be fair?

Authors: Professor Paul Sparrow Paul Sparrow

17 May 2013

Earlier this week, I gave a presentation to a CIPD HR Leaders Forum on the Changing Contours of Fairness, a joint project between the Centre for Performance-led HR, The Work Foundation and CIPD.

I talked about the many unavoidable dilemmas. The situations where we try to be seen as fair to one employee may take us down a path that is seen as inherently unfair or unjust to another. Dilemmas such as the way we are dealing with issues like the reform of pensions; or the sharing of job opportunities across generational groups; or the challenges of balancing rewards and incentivisation with the delivery of truly valued performance; or the balance of talent investment across global boundaries. These are all messy problems that need us to think more broadly, and they are not going to go away.

We are moving into a new world where substantial transfers of risk are taking place with responsibility (though not necessarily accountability) being shifted between markets, states, organisations and individuals (across   generations).  HR functions see these broader developments in the balance between work and society and realise that they are now faced with ever more complex judgements as to what can be seen to be ‘fair’.

HR directors could ask, “Does this matter?” If they work in market-based organisations, then life may often be unfair.  Haven’t we always ended up bargaining off gains and losses?  This is true.  But there is going to be a bottom-line price to pay if we think we can just firefight our way through these dilemmas. We live in an increasingly transparent world. The problem with transparency is that it exposes a strategy - or the lack of one. The position we take will be seen to matter. Organisations have invested significant resources into employee engagement, some even setting up employee insight units. The engagement of different employee groups is often driven by different factors.

Those looking for a good return on investment from their engagement strategies need to consider a number of questions. Could your HR policies, in spite of your best intentions, end up triggering outcomes which result in significant inequality or perceived injustice? Could employees feel there is a lack of burden-sharing or an inadequate sense of proportionality? Will you really be able to deepen employee engagement, develop organisational advocacy or build up your brand? Can you be confident of your organisation’s customer centricity and do your polices promote authentic responsibility for wellbeing on an individual basis?

In HR, is our thinking stuck in quite narrow terms? We are used to the models of industrial relations or the work of psychologists on justice but are these delivering all we need? These models serve a purpose but are no longer enough. We must seek new models that help us think about fairness more broadly and define what is considered fair in these complex situations.

Big debates on fairness in the workplace, employee engagement and wellbeing are taking place beyond our usual territories. Economists, generational researchers and environmental researchers are among those speaking up about what works and what needs to change.  It is time for HR leaders to step beyond their usual comfort zones and to engage with broader perspectives and to join in these debates.

For further information on the Mapping the contours of organisational fairness project please click here.