Having just spent the weekend with my children, I have been left in no uncertain doubt as to their views on the fairness (or otherwise) of the way that I treat them. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday I have been subject to a continuous stream of “It’s not fair.” Whether it’s the amount of cornflakes in their bowl of cereal, or the level of water they have left in their glass, or the fact that one of them has the exact piece of Lego the other one wanted at that moment in time.

While perceived fairness – or otherwise! – is a particularly core component of the way children view the world, the fact is that this never entirely leaves us. We are all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy; we know that fourth up on the pyramid is ‘Esteem’.

The importance of esteem

‘Esteem’, as defined by Maslow, spans a breadth of requirements; however, fundamental to that need is the sense that one is respected by others. And, when we look at what that really means, when we break it down, it comes down to fairness. Fairness, and parity of treatment, are absolutely key to us as individuals if we are to reach the fifth – and most critical for delivering high performance – point on the pyramid, that of ‘Self Actualisation’.

So, if we want our employees to perform to the best of their abilities, we need to treat them fairly. So far, so simple. Unfortunately, while we might know and understand the theory, it’s not usually quite that easy to put into practise.

Our own unconscious biases

The fact is that each of us are subject to our own unconscious biases, which over the course of a series of interactions with individual employees can start to erode the fairness of treatment that we mete out. Are we intentionally treating one employee differently to another? Probably not. But this is one such instance where intention actually doesn’t matter… it’s the outcome which will make the difference.

The other interesting thing when it comes to fairness of treatment is that it is the perception of fairness which matters more than the fairness itself. As managers, we might be absolutely scrupulous about ensuring that each of our direct reports has the same amount of one to one contact with us, the same number and scale of objectives, the same opportunities to develop and progress. None of that will have the desired impact if we don’t ensure we are transparent as well as fair. Everyone who works for us needs to really feel and believe that their treatment by us is both fair and consistent, if they are to fully reach their performance potential.

Fairness versus parity

One other note on fairness. There are sometimes concerns from managers where, for example, the same two people carrying out exactly the same role will not be equally rewarded at pay review time. And this is where it’s important to distinguish between fairness, and parity. If we were talking absolute parity, then we would be increasing both of these individuals’ salaries, exactly in line with each other. Managers sometimes fall into the trap of believing that, in order to be fair, this is what we have to do.

But that is not fair treatment. That is parity for the sake of parity, and, furthermore, parity which could actually damage individuals’ perception of fairness. Because, in the example above, if one of the individuals is performing at a level significantly ahead of the other – and if we are able to objectively measure this, if we have given both individuals the same opportunities to have set and achieve objectives, to develop, and ultimately to deliver… then it is absolutely fair to reward our higher performers as such. Fairness is about equal treatment, but it will not always be about equal outcomes.

A continuous challenge

So my challenge to you today is to go out and look at the people within the teams that you manage. Can you honestly say that you always ensure fair treatment to all? Are you absolutely comfortable that you are not allowing your own unconscious bias to mean that you end up spending more time, and providing greater support, with those individuals with whom you naturally feel the greatest affinity? Fairness of treatment to all is something that we should all continuously challenge ourselves on – and allow others around us to do so too.

Ultimately, for an organisation to really deliver, we need every employee within the business to be able to reach Level 5 of Maslow’s hierarchy. Where we – even if inadvertently – fail to ensure we are consistently fair, then we are creating a direct blocker to that. “It’s not fair!” may be a legitimate complaint for some of your employees within some of your teams. Fairness of treatment needs to become second nature if we are to achieve our goals, and become that employer of choice.