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BD Investigations’ founder, Tova Bar-Dayan, draws on nearly two decades of practical experience to break down topical issues relevant to today’s and future workplace. Below Tova shares her knowledge within her blogs updated weekly.

Life Isn’t Fair, So Why Should the Workplace Be?

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How old were you the first time you learned that life isn’t fair?

Most of us have parents or guardians who gently advised us as children that sometimes life isn’t fair, and Mick Jagger was sure to remind us that you can’t always get what you want. These lessons are well-intended; life has many disappointments, and they’re just trying to prepare us early. Certainly, socioeconomic upbringing has significant influence on our perception of fairness.

The unfairness experienced in life (generally speaking, not limited to childhood) is partly a function of its abundant and uncontrollable variables. Accordingly, there are limited circumstances in which one can realistically experience consistent fairness outside of a civil society with a strong legal framework (itself based upon fairness, and even then, sometimes miscarriages of justice occur).

Why then, should I as an employee of an organization, demand from my employer that it conducts its enterprise with fairness throughout? Because unlike the world at large, an employee has reasonable expectation that their workplace environment will be relatively controlled (outside the unforeseen actions of others), as supported by a legislative framework that has developed over time. Even considering the unforeseen actions of others, the expectation is that the matter is dealt with afterwards in a fair manner. 

Whether the issue is a protected ground covered by the Ontario Human Rights Code or a procedural concern, fairness is more important to employees than many employers realize, and more important to employers than they realize as well.

First, taking the employee perspective, much is made these days (and rightly so) about psychological safety and its 13 risk factors. According to the Canadian Standards Association’s seminal publication “Psychological health and safety in the workplace,” one of the situations in which risks to employee mental health are more likely to arise and contribute to a psychologically unsafe workplace relates to fairness (or rather, lack thereof).[1] To wit, envision “There is consistent failure or refusal to recognize and accommodate the reasonable needs, rights, and claims of workers. Perceptions of such failure can arise from feelings that decisions are made without attention to due process.”[2]

Next, considering the employer perspective, it has been studied and generally accepted that employees who feel psychologically safe are more engaged. It has also been found that employees whose managers were more procedurally fair were more likely to trust their managers (i.e., organizational trust), and as a consequence, exhibit greater organizational citizenship. That engagement/citizenship in turn leads to improved organizational performance as seen in many forms, such as reduced employee turnover, diminished conflict, improved topline performance, lower theft/waste/damage of inventory and equipment, etc., all of which serve to improve the bottom line. This connection was evidenced in a 2021 Gartner, Inc. survey[3] of 3,500 employees that found that employees who work in a perceived high fairness environment perform at a level that is 26% higher than those who don’t and are 27% less likely to quit; and yet, only 18% of surveyed employees claimed to work in such an environment.

At time of the survey, the four areas that employers were recommended to develop strategies around to increase employee perceptions of fairness at work included:

  • Being informed, i.e., transparency and evenness of dissemination;
  • Feeling supported with respect to well-being;
  • Feeling considered for opportunities; and
  • Receiving acknowledgement, i.e., accurate evaluation and recognition.

These relate directly to certain of the aforementioned 13 risk factors of psychological safety, reinforcing the close association of fairness expectations and psychological safety, respectively:

  • Clear Leadership and Expectations (includes being informed about important changes in a timely manner), as well as Involvement and Influence (includes being informed of important changes that will impact their work);
  • Psychological and Social Support, as well as Psychological Demands (of the job);
  • Growth and Development; and
  • Recognition and Reward.

To be sure, concern over workplace fairness is not a flash-in-the-pan fad. According to Gartner’s analysis of S&P 500 earnings calls from 2018-2021, the frequency with which CEOs talked about issues of equity, fairness, and inclusion rose by 658%! This is not surprising considering the COVID-19 pandemic, when not all employees were able to work remotely, where other employees were laid off and/or subject to return-to-work vaccination/testing mandates, etc.  It was also a time of escalation of social justice movements (e.g. BLM, #MeToo, etc.), leading to the currently prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across most organizations. However, solely relying upon a robust (and headline friendly) DEI scheme is not a fulsome substitute for the everyday fairness that employees expect to be permeated throughout an organization.

Moving past the employee perspective, improving workplace fairness and transparency is also on the radar of governments. For example, the Government of Ontario has proposed the Working for Workers Four Act, 2023 which will require companies subject to the Employment Standards Act to make a number of disclosures in job postings such as expected salary ranges and usage of artificial intelligence in applicant screening processes. Other changes will include a ban on requirements for Canadian work experience, greater protections for restaurant and hospitality workers around wages and tips, restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of workplace sexual misconduct, and more.

Now having acknowledged the important role fairness plays in the workplace, the question becomes, how do we measure it? As an alternative to a grueling, lengthy, and inconclusive self-examination of all policies, procedures, and anecdotal sampling of employee experiences, an organization who desires a proactive approach may engage in a workplace fairness assessment, which is a multi-aspect instrument conducted by a third-party certified Workplace Fairness Analyst. Inquiries are made of a key group of organizational stakeholders regarding themes of justice, efficiency, engagement, and resourcing. Depending on the severity of results, the organization may choose to undergo a multi-phase organizational fairness renewal exercise.

If we’re still unsure whether there are issues with perceived fairness, we might consider some of the symptoms:

  • Are managerial decisions inconsistent and/or arbitrary?
  • Do employees chronically resist change?
  • Are there a higher than historical number of workplace complaints, perhaps claiming harassment, bullying, or a toxic environment?
  • Are there an increased number of disgruntled employees, as evidenced by a satisfaction survey?
  • Has the organization experienced a higher than usual level of absenteeism, sick time, or turnover?

Employees know that life isn’t fair, but they (and the government) expect the workplace to be. If your employees are complaining that things at the workplace “just ain’t fair,” remember that it most likely isn’t their problem—it may very well be yours.

This post is written by Tova Bar-Dayan, MIR, CHRL, WFA, an experienced workplace investigator and HR/LR Consultant at BD Investigations, who recognizes the importance of trustworthy, trauma-informed, and impartial approaches to workplace conflict.  Tova is a regular contributor on LinkedIn.

Reviewed and Edited by the ADRIO Newsletter Blog Committee in collaboration with Staff:
Babara Benoliel (Chair)
Ben Drory
Robyn Jacobson
Kim Parish
Tommy Lam (Staff)

The opinions expressed in the articles featured in this newsletter are that of the respective writers and do not represent the views of The ADR Institute of Ontario.

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