Fairness in the workplace is a huge issue – and one that trips up many leaders. In fact, unfair treatment is the number one cause of burnout (Gallup, 2020) leading to employees who are 2.6 times more likely to actively seek another job and 63% more likely to take a sick day.

Employees who are unfairly treated are much less committed (and much less loyal) , much less likely to expend ‘discretionary effort’, have less trust and are much more likely to engage in ‘counter-productive’ behaviours (Hassan, 2013; Seifert et al., 2016).

Rachael Robertson the leader of Australia’s Antarctic station in 2005, speaks of the problems ‘proximity bias’, almost caused for her during the nine-month lockdown during the Antarctic winter. To paraphrase Rachael, if she consistently sat in the same place, near the same people during meals, that became a perceived as favouritism of one group over another. This is not the best in any workplace, but dangerous in an extreme environment like the south pole.

She quickly learnt to make sure she sat in a different place every day and mixed with everyone equally.

I had a similar experience, arriving at an office Christmas party with the director (my boss’s boss at the time). It had seemed like a good idea, because I wanted to have a drink and therefore couldn’t drive – but it started a whole train of innuendo and the perception that somehow I was the director’s favourite. Bad for both of us, and something I have never repeated.

Perception is Reality

Now, I’m sure no leader intends to be unfair, but the perception of unfairness alone is enough to cause the problem. One of the challenges of working virtually is that your team only see a thin slice of what is going on – those moments when you’re interacting, most often in a virtual meeting. Most of the time your virtual team members are working alone – plenty of scope for the imagination to create a ‘story’.

If you combine that with our very human inbuilt negativity bias (it kept us alive as we evolved), it’s very easy for a negative narrative to develop. Any perception of unfairness – any slight, a tone of voice from the last conversation, being overlooked in a meeting – can grow into something more than it is.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “Nature abhors a vacuum: whenever people do not know the truth, they fill the gaps with conjecture”

Yep, unless you’re actively going out of your way to demonstrate fairness, there is a danger that your remote workers will assume they are not being treated fairly. Right or wrong – good leaders know they have to address this issue carefully.

Here are some traps – and ways to avoid them.

Proximity Bias

Unfortunately, unfairness is exacerbated by some very human, and unintended, behaviours particularly ‘proximity bias’ – the tendency to favour whoever or whatever is closest in time or space, and undervalue what is further away.

After all, it’s very easy (and usually desirable) to fall into an ad-hoc conversation with a colleague or direct report, that evolves into a serious workplace conversation. While that’s generally good thing – it does favour those nearby over those working remotely.

I once worked in an office, where one of my colleagues ‘Bob’ had his desk right outside the director’s office. Now this director was a full of zest and ideas that he wanted implemented right away. Whenever he walked out of his office, who do you think he saw first? Yep, Bob. Bob got all the new projects. Who do you think the director talked to when he wanted feedback on an idea? Yep Bob.

It was very frustrating for Bob because he was always being loaded up with new work. It was very frustrating for the rest of us as it seemed that Bob was favoured.

The counter to this?

Never discuss a project or topic with your on-site team, that other team members are working on, in their absence. When you fall into these conversations, as you will, politely stop them as they gain momentum by saying “This is great discussion, I’d like to develop it further. It’s pretty important to XYZ. Let’s continue the conversation with them present”, or words to that effect.

Uneven Workload (and Rewards)

Be scrupulous in distributing work, and in recognising achievements i.e. spread the work evenly between your on and off-site team members, and provide fair rewards for fair effort.

More importantly, and you’re probably doing this anyway, discuss everyone’s workload at your team meetings. And remember “Praise in public, criticism in private.”

No Team Charter

Creating a team charter right from the beginning is one way to nip any problems in the bud, and create clear expectations. The charter should cover a bunch of issues such as values, vision etc. and most importantly – how you like to work together.

It will guide not only you, but provide an equal footing for your team members. Team charters are best developed with an external facilitator, but if you’d like to do it yourself message me for a free charter template.

The Clash of Virtual vs Physical Presence

Nowhere are perceptions of ‘unfairness’ more likely to arise than in meetings – particularly where you have a combination of on-site and off-site participants.

Some organisations go as far as to require that whenever there is anyone attending virtually, then everyone has to attend virtually – even if it means going to their desk and getting online. This kind of tactic goes some way to addressing the issue, but you might still find it hard to get equal input from everyone.

And let’s face it, that has always been an issue. As the saying goes “extroverts speak to think, and introverts think to speak”. They both are equally valid, but it means it’s harder to hear introverts unless you deliberately draw them into the conversation.

Uneven Opportunities to Contribute to Meetings

The other big problem with hybrid meetings is that it’s tricky to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute. The good news is, there is a way to make all your meetings, scrupulously fair. I call it the “Modified Delphi Method for Fair Virtual Meetings”. (Yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful, but it sounds better than “Popp’s method for cutting the clutter and hearing everyone clearly” or “Wait your Turn!” 🙂 )

It comes from an old brainstorming technique, called the Delphi method which I have adapted to give a number of benefits:

  1. Transparent process
  2. Speeds-up decision time
  3. More fruitful discussions
  4. A greater range and number of perspectives and ideas
  5. Relieves the chair from the mechanics of the meeting so they can focus on the content
  6. Get around those awkward zoom stand-offs: “you go”, “no you go”, “no you go” etc.
  7. Makes it easier on the meeting chair, to both run the session and participate in it.
  8. Trains your people to take their turn and listen to everyone else.

It works just as well when all your attendees are physically present. Best of all, once it’s ingrained, it will become a habit in your team.

The Delphi Method in Brief

The original Delphi method is a technique for gathering ideas during a brainstorming session (incidentally – brainstorming is one of the worst techniques for generating ideas). It is a much better technique than ‘standard’ brainstorming which, in being a free-for-all, favours the loud and is often railroaded by the most powerful person in the room.

I’ve adapted it for use in any team discussion – not just brainstorming and have been using it successfully for years when facilitating or chairing everything from a board meeting to a production meeting or a weekly project update.

If you’re a DIY kind of person here are the key directions.

  • Get everyone to write down their thoughts/responses/ideas first.
  • ‘Harvest’ the responses one by one.
  • Reflect back on the content of each person’s response.
  • Do rounds until the topic has been fully explored.

Give it a go.

People Want to Matter

If you can run your meetings in a way that everyone has an opportunity to contribute, in a way that everyone is heard and validated, then you have addressed one of the biggest risks to perceptions of unfairness. You will increase people’s engagement and participation, and improve decision-making at the same time.

People will leave your meetings feeling they have had a “fair go”, with a clear way forward and feeling they matter – perhaps the most important aspect of a fair a workplace and equal treatment of both your remoter and co-located staff.