(By Vanaja Kodungallur)
For most individuals, the idea of fairness is the act of being treated equally with no partiality, favoritism or discrimination. Every human being expects fair and just treatment for themselves. In fact research has proven that our brains have an automatic “happy” response to fairness and an equally strong and opposite response to unfairness.
The human need for fairness and justice extends to all aspects of our lives and so it is but natural that fairness be an essential component of a positive work culture that people look for in their organizations. However, creating an environment that is completely free of bias and prejudice isn’t as simple as it seems.
It is a natural human tendency for people to categorize every object, person and experience depending on the emotion that the instance arouses. Sometimes this can lead to conscious or unconscious exhibition of discriminatory and prejudiced behavior. So, while people innately crave fairness for themselves, very often they fail to recognize the tendencies in themselves that create unfairness for others. And it is this tendency in people that makes it challenging to create an environment that is completely free of prejudice and bias.
Adam’s equity theory suggests that individuals expect a certain result or reward for their efforts and they validate their expectations by comparing with those around them. Inequality with their environment results in deep rooted perceptions of unfairness. This is easily applicable to the workplace as well. Growth and monetary rewards are the most common areas that organizations track during culture surveys and the best run organizations have been found to have policies in place that help create an equitable environment limiting opportunity for human bias.
However softer aspects like the amount of work people do, the kind of rest they get, the perceived stress that they undergo or the personal sacrifices they believe they make for their workplace are rarely the subject of much organized assessment as these are non-tangible in nature and largely subject to supervisory (read as human) discretion.
Today, it is work-life integration that most people are talking about blurring what used to be a clear professional life vs personal life. But even as this is accepted as the new norm, there are increasing possibilities of employees not knowing where to draw the line when they feel pressured to go beyond their call of duty. For example, if we were to look at a high performing employee working for a 24×7 world class employer, it is very probable that the Organization has good HR practices allowing its employees the right amount of paid time offs and not exceeding the overtime hours mandated by the law. Even as this employee gets his/her due rewards and is compensated adequately, it could also set precedence for such an employee to be overburdened by their supervisors with more work given their enthusiasm or even challenge them continuously to prove themselves. This could inadvertently impact their freedom to sometime take the leaves they deserve or when they want it as they might be compensating for the workload of their fellow colleagues. Eventually, the employee might resent the experience and feel the treatment being met to them as unfair or even feel as a victim of the culture of favoritism. Not only can this lead to loss of critical talent but also add to new talent acquisition costs.
However, in the internet economy, the expectations for workers to be round the clock is often a given. The complexity for organizations however lies in the fact that while everyone would like a weekend and a festival holiday off, someone still has to work on these days to ensure business operations are not impacted. This is where technology plays a big role in helping remove any human bias, real or perceived.
According to a recent study by SHRM in India 82 percent of organizations believe increased use of workforce management tools could positively impact employee perception of fairness and equity. In fact today’s modern workforce management solutions allow the distribution of desirable and undesirable schedules in an equitable and unbiased manner so that everyone gets to have those important days off and desirable shifts and at the same time has to pitch in equally for the undesirable shifts and let go the occasional festival holiday. Sophisticated optimization algorithm and machine learning based approaches allow large number of factors to be considered before arriving at the perfect schedule which balances this without compromising on business requirements, which is humanly impossible for an individual to do. And the best part is that these systems allow for constant optimization and recalculation to factor in any last minute changes that inevitably occur in our dynamic business environments.
Nevertheless, despite every possible effort to ensure employee preferences are accommodated it is possible that managers will occasionally need to take decisions that might seem biased to a set of employees such as asking an employee to stretch work hours last minute to accommodate an unexpected staffing situation. It becomes important to differentiate between unfavorable decisions that are taken due to business constraints and decisions that appease a set of employees to the exclusion of others. Again audit and pattern based analytics help uncover some of these decisions to let organizations understand what is actually happening at the ground level and has the manager made the right choice. Machine learning, artificial intelligence combined with actionable, insight based analytics embedded in workforce management tools go a long way in painting a clearer picture on the actual ground realities.
Gone are the days when workforce management tools were used to keep tabs on employees. In today’s world, these tools need to be seen as enablers to change the way the workforce is managed, not just in terms of managing cost or productivity but also to manage culture, strengthen engagement and drive transformation within the organization.
(The author is the Director, Business Consulting, India, Kronos Incorporated)
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