How Fairness At Work Affects Your Health

When employees feel they aren’t being treated equally, it can compromise their health. Here’s how to improve perceptions of fairness.

How Fairness At Work Affects Your Health
[Photo: via Shutterstock]

Employees’ perception of fairness at work can impact their health, according to a new study by the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.


Researchers investigated how employees’ perceptions of workplace policies for rewards, pay, promotion, and assignments were impacting their health and found that employees who reported more fairness at work also reported better health. The findings suggest that employees who feel they are being treated fairly at work are more motivated and more likely to feel healthy.

When an employee feels that others are being treated better than they are, it puts stress on their health, says Tom Moran, CEO of the staffing agency Addison Group. The key, he says, is to make sure employees feel heard, even if they don’t get their preferred outcome.

We asked human resource and leadership experts to outline five ways companies can improve perceptions of fairness in the workplace.

1. Offer Clear And Transparent Policies

Make sure your company has clear policies that specify what is in place for compensation, rewards, and bonus, says Richard S. Wellins, a senior vice president at Development Dimensions International, a global leadership consultancy. “The more secret you keep things, the more likely it is for an employee to feel the company is not playing fair,” he says.

Lay out clear steps for how to achieve a promotion or what skills are needed to be promoted, and have that information widely accessible on the intranet, says Lisa Walden, a generational expert at BridgeWorks, a generational consulting company.


2. Show Empathy

The issue of unfairness will often play itself out in a discussion between a manager and an employee, where an employee feels he has not been heard and leaves with the perception that he wasn’t treated fairly, Wellins says. This is why it’s important for managers to make time for one-on-one, face-to-face conversations with their employees, he says, even if you don’t want to discuss why they didn’t get the promotion or raise they wanted.

Hear the employee out, Wellins says, and tell him that he is valued and, to the extent you can, explain the reason behind your decision. Even if you can’t disclose everything, he says, disclosing even a little bit of information, and offering to help them achieve their goal, can make a difference in how the employee perceives the workplace.

3. Handle Promotions With Care

Often when someone is passed over for a promotion, they have no idea why, Wellins says. They are just told they didn’t get it or they weren’t qualified. Yet, he says, the best way to combat unfairness is to bring objectivity and criteria into the promotion process.

In most offices, promotions are announced by email and often that is the first time employees are hearing about a promotion opportunity. “Be as open as you can about what is happening within your office walls,” says Walden. That might mean having a manager tell staff ahead of time that the company is considering promotions. Or, better yet, post all promotion opportunities for the entire staff to see and potentially apply for, Wellins says.

And, before announcing who was promoted, consider letting immediate staff know. Managers at Addison Group will think about which employees the promotion will directly affect and then meet with those people before making a companywide announcement. “Then, when the announcement is made, it’s not as much of a distraction and they understand why the person was promoted,” Moran says.


4. Provide Honest Feedback

Honest two-way feedback is key to combating perceptions of unfairness at work, especially with millennials. Millennials have grown up with constant access to information, says Walden, and they expect the same at work. They want frequent, in-the-moment feedback that is both formal and informal so they feel they have opportunities to be coached, she says. Feedback on something they did wrong four months ago doesn’t resonate, she says. Instead, they will say it was unfair that you didn’t address it at the time it happened.

When feedback isn’t perceived as honest, employees have feelings of anger, disengagement, and skepticism toward further management efforts, says Joanna Barsh, director emerita for McKinsey & Company and author of Centered Leadership. Employees want to feel they are being told the whole truth and not being deceived in some way, she says.

5. Avoid Favoritism

One of the hardest perceptions to combat in the workplace, experts say, is favoritism. This has become increasingly tricky, they say, because many millennials seek to have a close friendship with their coworkers and manager.

Perceptions of favoritism can come out in formal decisions like pay and compensation, or informal decisions such as who gets a special assignment or receives more lenient treatment, Wellins says. It also can come down to who the boss relates to, talks to regularly, and goes to for advice, he says. Other people can quickly begin to feel left out.

One way to counter favoritism, says Walden, is to solicit advice from peers about which employee to task with a special assignment. Write down each employee’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to the task and ask someone who isn’t involved with managing your team who should get the assignment, Walden says.


“Any person who is serious about work cares about how they are treated at work and how decisions are made,” Wellins says. “Keep in mind that might have an impact on your employees feel.”

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About the author

Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, technology and beer. Her articles appear in The Christian Science Monitor,, Family Circle and October.