Ready to GROW your business by 40% - 173% this year?Alternate Text
1 December 2020

Overworked Managers Treat Teams Unfairly-Surprising Research

Jairek Robbins

Surprising research published in 2018 by a team at Harvard Business School suggests that employees are more likely to be treated unfairly if their managers are overworked or have limited time to attend to all their responsibilities.

Why should you even be concerned about your employees’ perception of being treated fairly by their line managers? Studies conducted over more than 60 years firmly conclude that when employees feel that they are treated fairly, they tend to be more productive, more engaged, less likely to be rude and they are better team players. All these are desirable attributes at any company.

It is therefore in your best interest as a manager or business owner, and you owe it to yourself to ensure that employees are treated fairly. But then, what is this thing called fair treatment of employees?

Factors that define fairness at workplaces

Distributive fairness 

The research team identifies distributive fairness as one of the hallmarks of being fair to employees. It refers to the equitable distribution of rewards for the contributions made by employees. As you may already know, employees are likely to compare how you treat them as a manager to the way you treat others. Fairness in this case means everyone gets treated or rewarded the same way.

Clear and transparent procedures

In this case, it is important for managers to apply a clear set of procedures as they make decisions affecting different members of their teams. Consistency and equity matter a lot if you would like your employees to describe you as a manager who treats them with fairness, and it is especially important that all managerial decisions are based on accurate information. There should never be a situation in which a manager is seen as being biased in the way they handle matters of employees.

Informational fairness

The third aspect of fairness that the researchers considered is informational fairness. This involves explaining the logical basis of any managerial decisions made. Employees deserve to know why a decision went one way and not the other, and managers who provide a timely explanation of their decisions are perceived as treating their employees more fairly. When a manager is too busy to provide such explanations, employees will feel unfairly treated.

Interpersonal fairness

It is important to treat your employees or team members with dignity and respect. While this may be taken as a given during the best of times, stress and a huge workload can quickly relegate respect and dignity to the backburner in employee relations. It just takes one act of impatience for an employee to feel disrespected and underappreciated, and such an employee may not hesitate to leave once they get an opportunity outside the company. Even if they stay, their productivity is likely to suffer as their morale will be low.

Related: How To Help Your Employees Become Healthier, Happier, and More Fulfilled!

How the researchers arrived at their conclusions about fairness

The researchers conducted three separate experiments or studies to understand the effect of unfairness on teams.

For example, in one study, the team enlisted 107 managers across the U.S. and asked them to complete two surveys on a daily basis for a duration of 10 work days. The first survey was administered at around midday and it asked the managers about their workload for that day. The second survey, administered towards the end of the work day, required the managers to share whether they felt their workload had impacted how fairly they treated their teams on the four factors of fairness discussed earlier. The findings were that on the days when managers had a heavy workload, their technical duties took precedence over their ability to be fair to their employees.

The other two studies, including one that had participants in India, produced the same results.

What can you do to increase fairness in the way managers treat employees?

We have seen how important fairness is when handling employees. It impacts productivity, engagement, retention and better interactions with clients and other stakeholders. Here are some steps you can consider to increase the level of fairness in the way managers interact with their teams.

Reward managers for being fair to employees

In one of the studies conducted by the researchers, it was found that managers who were rewarded for treating their teams with fairness treated their direct reports with fairness regardless of how big their workload was. This wasn’t the case for managers who didn’t receive any compensation for being fair to their employees.

It is therefore advisable for you to design a reward mechanism which makes fairness an integral part of managerial work. Whatever you do, including withholding bonuses to top performers who don’t treat employees fairly, ensure that fairness is entrenched as a culture in your team or company.

Hire managers on the basis of soft skills

In many companies, employees who perform their technical tasks exceptionally are promoted to managerial positions. While this isn’t necessarily bad, a lot of star performers on technical aspects perform miserably as managers or leaders since they lack the soft skills needed to succeed as people managers.

It is therefore helpful to scrutinize the soft skills as well as the technical abilities of prospects who are being considered for managerial roles. Attach more weight to soft skills during the selection process as technical ability can easily be improved through training and mentorship.

Manage workloads effectively

Multiple studies have shown that the biggest productivity improvements come from keeping employees engaged, and that is best done through interactions between managers and those employees. A manager’s biggest task is to be a mentor and a coach to his or her team, so these individuals need to have minimal technical loads so that they can devote more time to their people management tasks. If there is a clash between workloads and fairness, precedence should be accorded to acts of fairness as that’s the key to unlocking productivity.

We live at a time when highly productive employees are in short supply in lots of industries. Employee retention is therefore a key desire of companies and one of the best ways to keep your best performers is by stepping up the fairness of managers. After all, people don’t quit bad jobs, they quit bad managers. Are you a bad manager or one who treats team members with fairness?

To Your Success,

Jairek Robbins



Never Miss A Post! Opt-In for Our Weekly Newsletter!

Sign up