Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fairness in the Workplace

I usually enjoy links that Influencers on LinkedIn that I follow, like Richard Branson, post, but today I came across an atrocious piece from Virgin that gave me a visceral reaction, thus inspiring me to write this blog instead of going back to sleep on a Sunday morning.  The article was on the topic of fairness in the workplace, and was part of a larger series about the future of work.  I was intrigued by the title because I have been a victim of unfair treatment in the workplace, in my and many others' opinions.  What's more, I have since found refuge in a company culture that is almost completely the opposite.  But as I read the article, while there were some interesting ideas in there, like a tab at the local pub compliments of the company, all I saw was that perks and benefits were being equated to fairness.  Listen, perks are nice, benefits are great, but they do not level unfair playing fields.  Fairness is about being paid for the value you bring, being promoted based on your merits and accomplishments, equal opportunities and clear career path options.  

In fact, some of the perks and benefits listed have the potential to only widen the fairness gap instead of solving for it: the tab at the local pub may be appealing to someone who likes to relax with a drink, but what about people who don't drink?  What about recovering alcoholics?  What about people who are trying to lose weight by not drinking so much?  I'm not going to say that this alone is BAD, that drinking is BAD, but I am going to say that it sends the wrong message.  I think people who want to drink will drink, and let them do that on their own dime (myself included).  Sure, I paid for my employees' drinks when I ran a brewery tour company, but drinking was part of the job, in that case.  In general, I think companies should promote things that are good for you: free or subsidized salad bars and gym memberships, or gyms at the companies' facilities, discounts on 5k and marathon races, financial support for Weight Watchers or AA or other support groups, medical benefits, etc.  Most companies have some sort of medical benefits and short-term and long-term disability, so I think it makes sense from a long-term financial view to support things that make your employees healthier, avoiding higher medical expenses down the road.  That's a win-win.  Paid time off for volunteer work is another great one, good for your employees and for the community.  

The article talks about how fairness is hard to quantify, and I agree.  It also points to it boiling down to people saying they love their jobs or not, and that also makes good intuitive sense, as long as there are no but's after the phrase, "I love my job."  But I think we can also do better.  I know some companies try to measure workload by inventory dollars or SKU counts in supply chain, but even that can lead to unfair results; certain SKUs may be worth more to the company or be more difficult to manage for various reasons (quality, supplier relations, lead times, etc).  Some companies use more direct surveys to ask their people if they feel they are paid fairly and treated fairly in terms of promotions, etc.  I used to be a little cynical about this: does anyone ever feel that they are paid "enough" for the crap that they endure for the company?  But now I'm a little more optimistic, I think it is possible to compensate employees in such a way that they are happy in their jobs, and that is fair.  At least one company I worked at had a measure called "regrettable attrition," and the fact only that this measure existed bothered me, especially because it was my understanding that they never fought to keep those who would fall into this measure, they just accepted it as a consequence of an unfair work environment.  And sure enough, when I left, nobody asked me what it would take to keep me.  I certainly believe that I was another tick in that regrettable attrition measure.  

What was so utterly shocking to me when I finally told the world I was leaving my previous company was the responses I got.  Normally, people say things like, "Congrats on the new role," and "Best of luck in your future endeavors."  Not for me.  The people who knew me well, the people who worked with me, said things like, "I'm happy you're getting out," and, "Congrats on escaping," and, "You deserve better."  It gave me the eerie feeling that I had put up with the BS for far too long, that I should have thrown in the towel long before I did.  And they were probably right.  I had let the negative feedback get to me, my ego wanting to prove them wrong, and so I had worked harder and done better only to continue to be put down over and over again.  Perhaps I shouldn't have wasted my time.  There is no proving them wrong in an unfair environment: where gender has more to do with promotability than accomplishments, intelligence, and capabilities, where leadership is judged by how much of an asshole you are instead of your ability to influence and complete collaborative initiatives, where fingers are pointed in all directions but nobody claims responsibility.  

I think one of the best philosophies on fairness that I've heard came from Michael Dell, and I heard this a long time ago from someone else so I have no idea if its valid anymore (or if it ever was).  The idea was simple but shocking: when someone does a good job, promote them and cut his or her responsibilities.  It's a jarring idea because usually promotions come with more responsibility, but the idea is that you are freeing high-potential people to fulfill their potential, instead of burdening them with more work because they've done well with less.  Another great idea comes from Google, and no its not the free food, but the ability to spend some work time on whatever projects the employees want.  I think its something like 70% of their time is spent on projects, and 30% of their time they spend how they choose, related to work of course, but their own ideas instead of assignments from higher-ups.  This speaks volumes in contradiction to the micro-managing and slave-driving we see at other companies.  

One thing that has always bothered me, just a slight itch and not something I would lead a massive war campaign against, but still bothered by, is the idea of maternity leave.  Some companies are making it more fair by allowing paternity leave as well, and I think that's a good first step.  But this means that people can leave their jobs for several months, and come back with no consequences.  So if you have a lot of kids, you will keep leaving your job and coming back, yet if you choose to never have kids, then you're always working except for your allotted vacation time.  Now I get the reasoning behind it, you aren't going to put a newborn into daycare on day 3 of its life.  And I wouldn't want people to lose their jobs because they decided to have a family.  And I get that maternity leave isn't the same as vacation, that motherhood is challenging and is a different kind of work.  But still, it is time away from one's career that is only granted by having a baby.  All I am saying is that not being a parent shouldn't work against you.  Some companies have sabbaticals during which its employees aren't allowed to work, and are encouraged to travel or relax or do whatever.  I would make the argument that, in the spirit of fairness, sabbaticals should be granted in lieu of maternity or paternity leave every so many years to non-parents.  You can choose to have a baby and go on leave, but if, in three years say, you haven't happened to have a baby, we'll give you a sabbatical, maybe only 5 or 6 weeks, but something to get you out of the office for a while, to reinvigorate you.  If we can get that, I'd say that would be a nice fair equalization.  My next step would be to get sabbatical showers in lieu of wedding and baby showers, but that's for another day.  

There was a great reward system at one of my previous companies: if you did something extraordinary, i.e. beyond your job requirements and something that has no impact to your performance and accomplishments, someone could nominate you for an award.  They called them "Bravo Awards," and there were bronze, silver and gold levels.  They came with monetary rewards, so it wasn't just a silly piece of paper.  I think it's important to make it easy for people to reward one another, and encourage them to do so, because it gives helpful people a reason to be helpful.  Otherwise, when you're just tasked with helping all the time, with no reward, no acknowledgment or appreciation, it just becomes a burden to be helpful, and become less inclined to help others.  Some of the smartest people I know resisted being helpful to others, because if you help them once, you are burdened to help them all the time.  The people that receive this kind of help I refer to as leeches.  They always need help, and once they find someone smart, they will task them with every problem they have.  Imagine if you had three such leeches, people who always interrupt your work for whatever issue they think is a catastrophe on their desk, and come to you weekly or daily for help, even though you are not an expert in their problem or have already taught them how to fix it before.  How productive are you going to be if you constantly have to help everyone else you work with to do their basic jobs?  At a minimum, the reward system will at least prevent smart people from hiding and resisting being helpful, because it at least incentivizes them to be helpful (if they get recognized on a regular basis).  But I would take it a step further: find the people who are being rewarded a lot, and ask them who is a burden.  Maybe those burdens need more training and development, so you can focus in on your weak links and build them up; or maybe they are just weak links and need to be let go.  Either way, use the reward system to root out the leeches, they are not serving your company well if they cannot do their jobs without constant help, and reward the most helpful people by freeing them of their leeches so they are not discouraged from helping others.  And for the people who are getting rewarded a lot, give them opportunities to do less tactical work and do some teaching and development for the group, or free them to create the tools and processes that make the job better as a whole.  Find out what they want to do, and give them the time and space to do it.  

Promotions are a sore subject for me.  To an extent, I think promotions should be more team-based, almost voting-based.  A manager two or three levels up may not be aware of all the nuances of the team dynamics, but the team does.  So if a new leader of a group is needed, shouldn't the group at least have a say in who is to be their new manager?  If you were to put it to a vote, and the entire team wants a specific team member to take over, and the hiring manager was going to take a person from another department and put him or her in charge, wouldn't you second guess that decision?  Certainly, I think the hiring manager should have the last say, veto power if you will, but getting the team involved in the decision can dissolve some of the political nuances.  After all, people talk a big game can do so in interviews or with colleagues they rarely interact with, but if you work with someone every day, you know what they are really like.  It also could encourage the team to be better team players; if they want a promotion in the future, they better be good to their colleagues or they won't get their votes.  The same goes for outside the team, too; if you want to become the head of another team, show those people you would be a good addition to their team well in advance of the job opening.  I think it would change the whole dynamic in the work place if you knew that your future promotions depended on people voting you in, not just an interview with the hiring manager.  Now, to the point of the hiring manager, I got burned because apparently mostly-positive reviews with one less-than-perfect score on them prevented the hiring manager from promoting me, as an HR rule supposedly.  I don't know how much of that was politicizing or whether there was a completely different truth behind those stories, but nevertheless, the bottom line for me is that a hiring manager should be able to promote or hire whomever he or she chooses.  If the selection goes against what the entire team wants, maybe some justification is needed, but hiring managers need to have the final say.  

I think there's still more work to do on fairness beyond these ideas.  It's a tough concept to address, no doubt, especially because people measure fairness differently.  One person may see hours worked as the measure: if I'm working 55 hours per week and you're only working 40, then I must have an unfair amount of work to do.  Other people may see it as productivity: if I can handle 5 product lines and you can only handle 1, then I have an unfair amount of work.  Even physical labor is challenging: if Josh can move 50 units an hour and Melissa can only move 35, then Josh is doing an unfair amount of work.  I think the only way around these judgments is clear policy by company.  I am whole-heartedly against the institution that you have to work x amount of hours.  If I feel satisfied with the work I've done for the day, and its only been 7 hours, or 35 hours for the week, why must I stay and make up things to do or play games in a secretive way?  I've known people who monitor the parking lot, waiting for their boss's car to leave, and then they leave five minutes after.  I tried this a few times, myself, and then realized that my boss drives really slow and goes the same way home, so I would catch up to him and could get "caught" unless I always drove like molasses.  But if a company states clear goals and objectives, and allows individuals to work whatever hours necessary to achieve those, then there is no question as to what is fair.  I have done x, y, and z, and even though it is only 2:30 pm, I am leaving.  Conversely, if the company wants to measure hours, then say so.  We work 45 hours per week, and no more, in order to ensure our employees are productive at work.  Studies show that working 55 to 70 hours per week actually decreases your productivity per hour, so this has merit.  If the policy is set by number of hours, than more productive employees will have to find projects to work on, take on more responsibility or maybe slow their work down and do better quality work, but whatever it is, that is simply the expectation.  If you don't like a company's fairness policy, find another one.  That, I think, is the future of work in regards to fairness.  

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