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Treat employees fairly or they'll walk, warns Gartner

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett September 24, 2021
Equity and fairness will become increasingly key to creating a positive employee experience in the hybrid workplace, believes Gartner.

Businessman selecting from global people network © Romolo Tavani -
(© Romolo Tavani -

Although a massive seven out of ten HR leaders believe creating a fairer employee experience will be their most important initiative of 2022, there would appear to be a huge mountain to climb if they are to truly enable a more equitable culture.

According to Brian Kropp, Gartner's Distinguished Vice President of HR Research in his keynote speech at the research and advisory firm's ReimagineHR conference last week, a mere 18% of the 3,500 staff questioned for the event's Employee Survey 2021 believe they work in an environment characterized by high levels of fairness. The remaining 82% feel that fairness levels are low. Even among HR professionals, only one in five believe people have a fair experience.

As a result, Kropp is adamant that this situation has to change. Not only does he believe tackling inequity in general terms will be one of the biggest issue facing society over the next five to 10 years but it will become increasingly vital for business success too.

In the "tightest labour market for a generation" with all the resultant challenges in terms of attracting and retaining talent, operating a ‘high fairness' environment can make the difference between winning and losing. For instance, he said, employees operating in this kind of culture perform 26% more highly and are 27% less likely to quit.

As Alexia Cambon, a research director in Gartner's HR research practice, pointed out, such considerations really need to be taken seriously when 82% of HR leaders are already seeing either some, or significant, early signs of staff turnover. This means that "retention is a key concern" and "engagement has to be a key priority" going forward.

How to increase equity and fairness

So what can be done? The first thing, Kropp recommended, is to complement existing approaches, which focus on how to remove unfair advantage, with ways of actively creating fairness. He explained:

"We realised that to build a fairer experience, it's may not just be about focusing on key moments relating to recruitment, promotion and pay. Perhaps it's broader — so if you're in a meeting and there are lots of people in the room but some are also on the phone, did you forget about them or, at the end, ask if they had anything to add as everyone was leaving?...So it's about the whole experience. In our analysis, we found that moments of recognition are critical for people to feel ‘fairness', but they only make up about a quarter of the total experience.

To introduce fairness in a proactive fashion, however, requires "new philosophies" rather than new policies. Based on employee input from a number of channels, including surveys and focus groups, Kropp said it became clear that for such an environment to become reality, it is vital employees feel:

  1. Informed;
  2. Supported and like the organisation has their back;
  3. Considered for opportunities as they come up;
  4. Acknowledged.

The problem in the first instance though is that only a third of employers currently practise organisational transparency due to a fear that staff will fail to understand the context and not know how to use the information anyway.

A huge 70% of employees, on the other hand, would opt to take one job over another if transparency was an evident part of company culture. Moreover, talent outcomes, which include hiring, performance and retention, are generally found to improve if such an approach is pursued.

Similar challenges exist in providing effective employee support. While 64% of organizations have invested in suitable initiatives, only just under a third of staff actually feel supported themselves, with perception being a key issue.

For example, while most employers have introduced programs to help out care-givers and parents during the pandemic, only 37% of recipients feel truly supported. But this number plummets to 27% among non-care-givers. Kropp explained the dynamics:

"The psychology literature indicates that perceptions relate to the amount of support received, but there's an even greater impact based on the relative levels of support perceived to be given to others. So part of the difference in perceptions of the additional flexibility and financial support given to parents is that non-parents ask themselves why they should have to pick up the slack when other people are getting the benefits….So it's about comparisons. Comparisons matter.

Put another way, how support is presented and framed is just as important, if not more so, than the actual support provided. This does not mean that all employees should be offered the same thing, but rather that they must be helped to understand that different people, including themselves, have different requirements to each other and so need to be helped in different ways.

Equity and fairness as a driver of engagement

Another reason that Cambon believes equity and fairness issues will "become a much more important driver of engagement" in future though is because of the dynamic, "innately uneven" employee experience in a hybrid working world. As she said during her presentation entitled ‘The New Rules of Engagement in the Game for Equity':

"Uneven experiences can lead not just to perceived inequity but to actual inequity too.

A key challenge for HR, however, is that it becomes much more difficult to monitor and measure engagement levels when employees are dispersed and working in various location and modes, not least virtually. This means that the two key indicators of engagement in times past, ‘high-discretionary effort' and ‘high intent to stay', are no longer enough.

Into the future, employees' "connection to work", which will need to be measured on an ongoing basis, will become the most reliable indicator of how they feel instead. This measurement will be based on four components:

  1. Absorption: How absorbed people feel in their work;
  2. Vigor: How keen they are to jump out of bed in the morning or not;
  3. Dedication: Based on how challenged and interested staff feel or not;
  4. Organizational purpose: Whether employees feel as if their work is contributing to something greater that is worth them investing in.

Meanwhile, in terms of the third contributor to fairness, access to opportunities which includes stretch assignments and promotion, Gartner's research shows that only 18% of qualified staff are actually given such chances. Most managers, rather than go for the most appropriate candidate, tend to default to the people they know best instead.

As a result, in the same way that referrals are generally considered to be the most effective means of hiring externally, Kropp recommends creating internal referral programmes based on peer networks to make access to opportunities more equitable.

The final piece of the ‘fairness' puzzle is acknowledgement. The problem here is that as organisations become increasingly complex, it is also becoming increasingly tricky to establish who the biggest contributors to performance actually are rather than just those who shout the loudest.

At the moment, a mere 24% of employees feel their contributions are acknowledged and Kropp expects this situation to worsen as hybrid working progressively takes hold.

One example of how relates to career progression. For instance, just under two thirds of managers believe that office-based workers are more productive, while just over three quarters say they are more likely to promote on-site staff.

A key problem in this context is that a significant 8% more women than men say they prefer to work either from home and/or remotely, a situation that has the potential to lead to higher levels of gender inequity in both pay and promotion terms.

Unsurprisingly as a result of all this, Gartner's 2021 Diversifying Leadership Survey conducted among 53 HR leaders revealed that as few as 13% believe the managers in their organization are effective at promoting diversity.

Managers as an untapped DEI resource

Nonetheless, Katie Sutherland, Senior Principal Advisor at the firm's HR practice, believes these managers are a largely "untapped resource" in helping to create diverse, equitable and inclusive company cultures due to the "outsized impact on employee careers" they have. This impact can be felt in a number of ways:

  1. Cost: Around half of all candidates that experience bias from a hiring manager discontinue their job application, which means that employers could end up missing out on top talent as a result;
  2. Fair treatment: Underrepresented groups are 2.5 times more likely to face barriers in progressing to senior roles because of their managers' behaviour;
  3. Belonging: Employees are 63% less likely to be high performers if their manager does not celebrate difference as they feel their views are not respected, causing them to disengage from the team and their work.

What this all means, believes Sutherland, is that it is no longer enough for managers to simply support the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activities being advocated by others in the organisation, including HR. Instead, they now need to "play a more active role in owning it and driving outcomes for the team".

For example, rather than just attending unconscious bias and diversity training sessions and trying not to allow discriminatory behaviour to creep in, they now need to challenge systemic bias in order to shift the status quo. They should also advocate for disadvantaged groups by understanding their lived experience, and actively foster inclusion.

HR professionals can help here by distilling the usual high-level guidance they provide into actionable activities that show managers what they can do on a day-to-day basis to make a difference. Examples include simple things, such as sticking to agreed meeting times and thanking people for good work. And these things matter because, as Sutherland pointed out:

"By owning DEI outcomes, managers agree to make fair and equitable decisions and if they're fair in their decision-making, there are benefits. Employees are three times more likely to be high performers, 2.9 times more likely to feel included and 1.5 times more likely to stay at the company.

Which means it has to be worth it.

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