Is Fair Treatment of Employees Essential for Engagement?

16 Nov

It is critical to engagement that an employee feels that he/she belongs to an organization that treats people fairly.  Employees need to know that if there is a problem it will be looked into promptly and a decision reached without delay to correct the problem and allow people to get back to their normal work life.   The issues may be serious, but the way the organization (usually the supervisor or HR) responds may be more damaging to the relationship, particularly if the response is perceived as offhand and promises are made (to check into something) and are not followed through.

Unfortunately, many organizations are notoriously bad at dealing with issues, sometimes lacking the expertise and sometimes deliberately ignoring or minimizing a problem, hoping it will go away.  It can also be corporate arrogance and dislike of complainers, even when they may have a valid complaint. Such corporate indifference to employee complaints (and general unfairness) is a common reason why employees may seek union representation and negotiate, for example, a grievance procedure that ensures more consistent handling of issues.

Many employee  issues relate to perceived favoritism, particularly wide variances in pay for people performing similar work, and perceived favoritism in who gets the overtime, who is selected for training and who the boss seems to like spending time with while being too busy for the rest.  There are also serious issues with discipline, employees who are allowed to get away with things and others who seem to be picked on for whatever reason. The organization may have sincere programs and initiatives to promote engagement, but without fair processes for handling employee issues, success is likely to be limited.

The supervisor may be frustrated that he/she is unable to achieve employee engagement, but if employees perceive the supervisor to be treating employee issues unfairly that is not surprising. The supervisor may become increasingly negative about the disengaged, poor attitude employees, while the employees feel increasingly helpless and victims of an unfair environment.  They do not feel they are listened to, even when they express their concerns in a respectful, professional way and in many cases, such unresolved issues, if sufficiently serious and widespread, may lead more towards unionization rather than engagement.


  • A policy (or equivalent) setting out  the company’s commitment to fairness and outlining steps to be followed in handling complaints, with emphasis on deadlines
  • A similar policy for investigating employee infractions, including the opportunity for the employee affected to tell his/her side of the story i.e. no pre-judgement
  • A proactive approach by the supervisor in dealing with perceived issues before they become formal complaints
  • No abdication on matters the supervisor may have no control over (e.g. job classification/evaluation or pay related) and ensuring and taking responsibility for follow up with the appropriate person e.g. in HR
  • To the extent possible, the supervisor should interact directly with employees in handling their concerns while, as necessary, getting advice and support from HR.  The communication should be as positive as possible, in the circumstances, and focus on building relationships and trust rather than appearing distant and hostile
  • If within the same organization, some sections are unionized, be aware of collective agreement provisions (e.g. grievance procedure and discipline) and ensure that company practices for non-union employees are similar in principle – certainly not inferior

It is critical that basic processes and relationships are established and working well before seeking greater engagement.  If the contrast between engagement initiatives and reality is too wide, engagement talk may be perceived as hypocrisy and more likely to result in employee backlash.  Engagement can be steadily achieved, step-by-step, but if attempted before basic commitments to employees have been met, it is unlikely to succeed.  What do you think? How important do you consider the contribution of effective dispute resolution processes to employee engagement?

Thank you for your interest.  I look forward to any thoughts and comments you may have.



4 Responses to “Is Fair Treatment of Employees Essential for Engagement?”

  1. Sooze November 17, 2014 at 11:12 pm #

    One thing I would like to suggest to your dispute resolution initiatives is that employees have an input into how the initiatives take shape, how they are enforced, when they should come into play, etc. Having been on what could be both sides of favored and not favored, it is easy to see both sides. When you are not favored, you can see others who slide yet there is no action, no meeting, no discussion whereas if you, as the non-favored make a mistake you will be called to the carpet. When favored, you can still see the unfairness of actions, workload, etc., but it may not matter as much because you are the “golden child” of the moment.
    I would also emphasize that supervisors should not make promises they know they can’t keep because the solution may very well be out of their hands. If a promise is made to look into a resolution that falls within a higher level, there needs to be a follow up within a reasonable period of time. If that action fails, it would be nice if continued effort on the part of the supervisor was made rather than letting the non-favored employee feel left behind, abandoned, and even less distinguishable among peers.
    All said and done, another great article, Ian.

    • ianclive November 18, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

      Hi Susan,

      Thank you for your kind words and great input on this subject.

      It certainly makes sense to have employee input on a dispute resolution process (particularly new) and if dispute resolution has been the cause of problems it could be by soliciting input from employees or, probably better, to have a series of focus groups. The dispute resolution (or discipline/investigative) process itself may be quite straight forward but if focus group input is used in developing a “purpose” paper to be shared with employees it can be very helpful. It could explain why the process has been designed, what it is and what it is not and what is hoped to be achieved and what is hoped to be avoided e.g. favoritism, any form of backlash etc.

      Also, as you suggest, management dispute resolution accountability (and competence) is essential and follow-up with other people who may be integral to resolution of a specific issue. There should certainly be some form of appeal outlined as part of the process and particularly
      to ensure the utmost objectivity. In most cases (if unresolved at manager level) the HR specialist may get involved but when particularly sensitive or complex there may be reason to use external resources e.g. an ADR or mediation professional.

      Thanks, as always, Susan for your insight and very helpful suggestions.

      Very best wishes,


  2. Roberta November 19, 2014 at 9:44 pm #

    Ian, you are absolutely correct in stating that employees must feel they are being treated fairly before any discussion of engagement can begin. A common problem with the perception of fairness and equal treatment in the workplace is the matter of personal privacy and confidentiality of information. All employees have no right to know the details of disciplinary actions taken with other employees – indeed our employees expect those actions remain private! I often have this conversation with employees; when they make comments that suggest they are being treated differently than others who do, or have done, the same thing. I ask them, “How do you know you’re being treated differently? We would never discuss the conversations that we have had with you with your co-workers, and of course we respect all team members privacy equally. Please do not make assumptions that others are being treated differently. Our management team works very hard to ensure that all processes and policies are followed consistently with all employees.” At that point, if they still feel they have information that we are not aware of I invite them to write a statement and assure them that we will look into the issue right away.

    • ianclive December 1, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

      Hi Roberta,

      I am sorry I missed your comments earlier, you make such great points.

      Confidentiality is so important and a reason why we do not have so many anecdotal stories we can share – confidentiality and respect!

      You make great suggestions how we handle such issues and we need to be so consistent, even when an employee is no longer with the company.

      Another point often made is that confidential matters involving employees (particularly compensation) may be stressed as confidential, but we need to be confident that if the confidence is divulged (by the employee) it will not reflect badly on the company or create a precedent. Handling inaccurate claims by employees (e.g. settlements received) is, of course, another matter.

      Thank you so much, Roberta, and again I apologize.


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