Workplace fairness is a complicated subject that can sometimes be difficult to comprehend and manage. Unfortunately, at-will employees, or those who are not union members and not working under contract, may appear to have no rights when they feel they are being treated unfairly. In many cases, it is up to the employer to ensure workers are treated in a fair manner that also keeps in mind the best interest of the organization.
Prior to the formation of labor unions in the United States, American workers had few legal rights when it came to workplace fairness. Employers could force their employees to work as many hours as they wanted for little pay and no benefits. Workers could only hope to be employed by an employee who wanted to treat workers fairly. While workers could quit a job they deemed unfair, they were often unlikely to fare better elsewhere. In the early 19th century, mass numbers of workers formed together and used their collective powers to force employers to treat workers more fairly.
One of the main benefits of maintaining fairness in the workplace is to avoid and manage conflict. Conflict in the workplace can increase absenteeism and decrease productivity. Workers who perceive their work environment as unfair will develop toxic working relationships over time. They may become distrustful of managers and even act territorial, lashing out at coworkers who they perceive as a threat. In extreme cases, the mismanagement of workplace conflict can lead to allegations of creating a hostile work environment. In such cases, conflict resolution can be extremely costly.
In many cases, the topic of workplace fairness is covered by an organization’s individual policies and procedures as well as by local, state and federal laws. By law, workers are guaranteed certain rights, including a safe work environment. There are many laws on the books that guard against discrimination and harassment. Employers must also follow a variety of laws concerning work hours, unpaid time and compensation.
Managers are often accused of "playing favorites" with employees. But there is great debate about what actually constitutes fair treatment in cases that are not explicitly covered by law. For example, if a particular worker consistently does more than is necessary and can be counted on to always get his work done and do it well, is it truly unfair to allow that worker more freedom than others? While it’s important to avoid giving preferential treatment to one worker over another, it is equally important to reward those employees who work hard and do their jobs well.