Fairness in the workplace

Fairness in the workplace

Joe Colihan

Anthony Schulzetenberg


|ˈfernəs|: The employee’s perception that the organization and its leaders demonstrate equitable treatment and respect towards their workers. Fairness includes the employee’s judgments on the integrity of their leaders as well as their ability to raise concerns without retribution.

Ideas about workplace fairness have evolved.  Early developments in equality and diversity focused on factors such as hiring and compensation; efforts were made to reduce or eliminate unfair practices based on race, nationality, and religion (to name a few).  These protections were enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a bookend year for the baby boomers. 

Other protections from discrimination based on gender, veteran status, disability, and sexual orientation have also been established.  Many companies have responded to these policies by promoting diversity in various ways, such as identifying and addressing wage gaps and increasing job recruitment efforts in underserved communities. 

This idea of “making your numbers” (i.e., balancing out inequities) has expanded to include the idea of supporting diversity of thought.  Companies began to ask about whether their workplace cultures invite and support diverse perspectives.  The opposite of this, called groupthink, has led to badly mangled initiatives like the Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as untold numbers of missed opportunities in the marketplace.  Openness is not only one of the major personality dimensions, it is also a highly sought-after trait for leaders and workers, especially in industries and professions where innovation and creativity win the day. 

The most recent progression within workplace fairness can be described as inclusion.  Many companies now have departments or teams focusing on efforts toward diversity and inclusion, exemplifying its importance in corporate America.  Not only should organizations demonstrate equitable practices and a healthy openness to diverse perspectives, but their team members should also feel included, rather than marginalized.  This also means encouraging members to bring their true selves to work.  If done right, employees will report feeling safe, respected, and included in decisions, thus removing roadblocks to success that exist in many organizations.

Fairness regarding age continues to be an issue for many companies.  Fifty years after the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, new research published this month by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies has found that the U.S. still struggles with age discrimination.  A couple examples of their interesting findings include the following:

·        Employers generally think they are more supportive of those working past 65 than those workers do, by about 10 percentage points.

·        Employers tend to think 70 is the age at which people are too old to work, but employees cited 75.

At a time when workers need to work longer into their later years, many are finding that their organizations do not support them.  As stated by Collinson, organizations "can enhance diversity and inclusivity, and foster innovation….  By not adopting business practices that can support workers of all ages, employers are missing out on an important opportunity."

These results are partially supported by our nationwide study using our Minnesota Workplace Wellness Assessment ℠ data.  Fairness was measured with items directly pertaining to fairness and respect, along with other items concerning trust in leadership, listening, caring, and the ability to raise issues without fear of retribution.  We used an employee’s position within their company to determine the baseline for the Fairness scores when comparing across organizations.

Not surprisingly, Fairness scores are highest among Directors and Executives, in the 76-77 range, while the scores in lower positions are somewhat less favorable, down to contractors at 64.  In our sample, 67 was about the average Fairness score.

So how do workplaces stack up across other demographics?  The good news is that scores for men and women differed only by rounding error, with both groups rounding to a score of 67, on average.  Results by ethnicity were also very close, with Hispanic or Latino perceptions of Fairness only one point lower than non-Hispanic or Latino employees.   

Patterns of Fairness by generation are interesting, but rather small in effect size.  The lowest score for Generation X was 65, only three points down from the most favorable group, Millennials, at 68.  Fairness by race shows differences no greater than 5 points in average perceptions, with American Indian or Alaskan Natives reporting the lowest ratings at 65. 


Taken as a whole, results for this sample of nearly 900 adults from across the U.S. do not reveal substantial differences among most demographic groups.  However, these statistics are averaged across organizations, industries, and job families; by doing so, this can mask differences that might exist within smaller groups.  Greater disparities may be present within single organizations or selected departments and teams.  We also found that 22% of participants agreed that they have been harassed in the workplace.  There is clearly room for improvement for perceptions of fairness in the workplace.  See Diversity, inclusion, and engagement in the workplace in the Research Corner for further insights.

One final note:  do you think that Engagement would be the #1 driver of Workplace Well-Being?  Think again.  Fairness was the top predictor, followed by Resources, Involvement, Teamwork, Engagement, Leadership, and Opportunity. 



Colihan, J., & Schulzetenberg, A.  (2018).  Minnesota Workplace Wellness Assessment,  https://www.colihanconsulting.com/.

Collinson, C.  (2018).  Striking Similarities and Disconcerting Disconnects: Employers, Workers and Retirement Security: 18th Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey.  Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, https://www.transamericacenter.org/. 

Miller, S.  (2018).  Employers and Workers Disagree on Being ‘Too Old’ to Work.  Society for Human Resource Management, https://www.shrm.org/.