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Fairness and Information & Consultation

Overcoming Resistance to Best Practice

Often, when I enter a room of employee forum representatives who I'm going to be training on Best Practice in organisational change, I'll get a bit of resistance from a small number of people.

"The people I represent only care about what happens to them: it's about their jobs, and their wages," someone will say.

"I just tell it how it is," growls someone else belligerently, their arms crossed.

Actually, a lot of the time, it's the same person saying both those things.

Reading Between the Lines

As a trainer, this tells me two things: the person is in desperate need of information, and, if they want to communicate effectively, it's absolutely essential to challenge and evolve their communicational behaviours and skills.

I've been doing this for a long enough time that I also understand what usually underlies these questions. Respectively, the underlying concerns are:

"I'm having a hard time getting the people I represent to think outside of their silos and think about the bigger picture. People are scared and worried about what's going to happen to them. How can I get them to think about the collective?"

"I feel like nobody's listening to us - and by "nobody" I mean management and staff. I'm frustrated, so I've started raising my voice and using sarcasm. It certainly gets more attention. I don't know what else to do to get their attention."

I have to say that 90% of the time, the people who started out being cynical end up being the most vocal advocates by the end of the course.

This is About Fairness

Both these concerns are permeated by a sense of being treated unfairly - employees who are worried and scared because they feel that they can't depend on being treated fairly by the company, and reps who feel they aren't being taken seriously. Managers feel it too - that their decision-making isn't being respected or heard, even though their goal is always to improve the company.

So fairness is the big issue here; it's also the tool with which to address those concerns.

The idea of 'fairness' is central to the training I do around Information & Consultation for Employee Forum Representatives. I've written about it before, and I'll probably write about it again.

Thinking Collectively Allows People to Assess Fairness

"People only care about what happens to them."

First of all, staff and staff reps need the information that will allow them to change their thinking.

Very simply, my response to this concern is that if you don't know what's happening to everyone else, how can you possibly know if you're being treated fairly? Fairness can only be assessed as a relative idea. Understanding what is happening collectively gives employees a frame of reference against which they can measure their own experience.

But let's explore this in a bit more depth.

What is fairness exactly? Is it everybody getting what they want? The wages and schedule they want? If employees were to answer "yes" to this question (and they often do), I'd pose two additional questions:

"Does everybody in a given company want exactly the same thing from their employer?" The answer's usually a resounding "no." Some people will want flex-time, some will want childcare, or to leave early to take care of ageing relatives. Still others will want more holidays, or away-days. Some staff will want a place and breaks for smoking. Not everyone will want the same thing. If the company tries to fulfil all these individual needs, inevitably, staff will start to look at what other people are getting and, measuring up, will find that they're not getting as much as some, though they may be getting more than others. And that means, somebody will be saying, "It's not fair!"

And then, to make it more complicated, over a life-time, any one worker will want different things from an employer. Perhaps the employee gets married or has children. Perhaps he or she needs to take care of an older relative. Perhaps there's a death in the family. People move house, improve their skill-set. Life is constantly changing, and as it does, people adapt how much effort they are putting into their work lives.

To sum this up: different people will want different things from their employer, and any one person over a life-time will want different things from their employer.

How can any employer give every individual employee what they want, especially as it changes over a life-time?

What people want is subjective and open to interpretation. And that means that using people's desires as a framework for fairness will always come up short.

Luckily, in business, there is one thing that affects everybody, and therefore is the ideal frame of reference for measuring fairness.

That one thing is the business' strategy for survival into the future. The strategy for maintaining or improving business as usual. That affects everybody.

So, people need to think about the collective because:

  • Fairness is a group thing - you can't tell if you're being treated fairly without knowing how everyone else is being treated

  • Fairness isn't about apples and oranges - you have to identify issues that affect everyone - and that one thing is the business' strategy for maintaining or improving business as usual, so the company can survive into the future.

How Behaviours Impact on Fairness

"I just tell it how it is."

If that were true, it would be fine. But usually people who say that mean that they are table-pounders. They raise their voices, they tell management how wrong they are, they speak for the sake of speaking. How do I know? Because they'll spend a good part of the training engaging in exactly those behaviours.

How exactly does this behaviour get the concerns of staff across? As you can imagine, it really doesn't. All that they achieve is convincing management that consulting with staff is a waste of time.

The solution here is all about training and helping people to ask the right questions, as well as to learn how to listen well. I've blogged about that here.

It really does change things. Here's one of my favourite stories about how asking the right questions - and understanding that fairness is driven by understanding strategy, not by attending to individual needs and concerns - makes a huge difference.

I went to train a group of reps just outside London. Their manager pulled me aside before I got started. He said, "I just want to tell you that my reps are amazing, I have 100% faith in them, and you are going to have a great day.

When I went into the room, one of the reps said to me, "We saw you talking to our manager. You should know he's a snake, and anything he told you is a lie."

I told them what he'd told me. By the way, they were a great group and I did have a great day.

When I went back to give a refresher course to the same group, the reps told me that now that they were asking the right questions and understood what fairness was really about, they had developed a great relationship with their manager, and were now working together as a team.

I have lots of stories like this. I just really like that one.

In a Nutshell...

It seems like it's human nature: we want to know if we're being treated fairly. First of all, make sure people get it straight and understand what fairness in business looks like (it's a group thing!) and that they have the behaviours and skills to scrutinise change and establish if it is fair by asking the right questions.

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