Long reads

Life isn't fair – but your workplace can be

28 Jan 2021 By Suzy Bashford

From making snap judgements on video calls to disadvantaging home workers, the pandemic has shone a light on the need to make society a fairer place. So how can HR help level the playing field after Covid?

In a change to the well-known adage, many have noted during the Covid pandemic that ‘we may all be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat’. And the ongoing crisis has certainly led some groups of society tackling the proverbial storm in rubber dinghies rather than luxury yachts, faring far worse during coronavirus for various reasons. For example, the elderly and those with long-term health conditions, who have throughout the crisis been advised to stay at home and ‘shield’ to avoid catching it. The parents of young children, who have spent months, on and off, juggling their jobs with home education as schools are forced to close for weeks at a time. The students embarking on their first year at university, only to be confined to their halls of residence with their lectures via a screen. The retail and hospitality workers made redundant because their employers are ‘non-essential’ and not allowed to open.

Although these different sets of circumstances, though unfortunate, are largely down to sheer bad luck, the pandemic has also forced us to think differently about some aspects of our lives, and turned the spotlight on the opportunities we have to make society a fairer place – and that includes within the world of work. But how should HR go about putting that into practice?

When it comes to fairness at work, many would be forgiven for thinking that being fair means treating everyone the same. But that’s not the case. “Don’t get hung up on equal being fair,” says Danielle Harmer, chief people officer at Aviva. “No one understands what ‘boat’ each individual is in, apart from that individual. We have 30,000 ‘boats’ at Aviva. Some just need a better chair. Others need a different working pattern. Others need to be in the office. Being fair is about being thoughtful of every individual.”

However, that doesn’t mean creating a culture of micromanagement where everyone in your organisation is asking HR what the fair solution is. In fact, it’s the opposite. What you should be aiming for, says Sarah Morris, chief people officer at Compass Group, is establishing such a clear guiding principle around fairness at board level, that managers embody this in their dealings with employees. “Trying to legislate for everything just creates dependency and an inability to scale. You want people to think for themselves,” she explains. “Once you have your clear principle, you then look at how you are going to facilitate that through process.”

Of course, just having this principle doesn’t mean a culture of fairness automatically follows. There are two non-negotiables when it comes to an organisation actually living it: employees need to trust their employer, and it needs to be not just communicated clearly but, when many are working remotely and trust is harder to cultivate via a screen, “overcommunicated”, says Harriet Molyneaux, co-managing director of Hot Spots Movement.

She explains that fairness is inextricably linked to trust and ethics. Historically, trust in organisations has been declining across the board but, when Covid hit, trust actually went up. Molyneaux attributes this to the fact that many businesses started treating their employees as adults more, empowering and trusting them to work from home in their own way. “When people feel trusted, they are in turn more trustworthy,” she says. “But that spirit and positivity is starting to fall away. Trust, ethics and fairness are built up over time, through being consistent, but can be broken very rapidly. It takes just 0.7 seconds for the brain to move to a threat-based perception, which happens when we sense distrust.”

It’s unfortunate, then, that fairness takes so long to establish but can be decimated in less than a second. But Hot Spots Movement’s research shows that the best protection against this is to talk openly about why decisions HR makes are fair. “The ‘why’ needs to be shared a lot more,” says Molyneaux. “Overcommunicate, and do so with warmth.”

And it’s important for HR to get this right. Employees feeling a sense of unfairness can often lead to stress, anxiety and potentially burnout – an increasing feature of Covid. “Not feeling like you’re treated fairly is linked to job dissatisfaction and stress,” says Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD. “What has come through in this pandemic is the importance of how we treat each other. Everybody has had their own issues around stress and anxiety and the people side of business has come through increasingly strongly showing that good people management is at the heart of a sustainable, well-run business.”

But how should this be done in practice? For those people professionals struggling to know where to start in implementing a culture of fairness in the new world of work, People Management explains the key areas to focus on, and important questions to ask.

Who are you furloughing and making redundant?

There is a very small number of organisations that won’t have had to deal with redundancies or furlough at some point in the past 10 months. But it’s a sensitive issue that requires clarity and empathy – possibly more than any other aspect of HR – and studies suggest it’s having far more impact on some groups of society than others.

Research has found that women, people with children or caring responsibilities, and those from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be furloughed or made redundant. For example, a report by MBS Intelligence into the impact of Covid on gender, race and ethnic diversity in the hospitality, travel and leisure (HTL) industries found that while 77 per cent of businesses believe inclusion and diversity remains a priority, only 15 per cent report that it has been raised at board meetings since the outset of the crisis. And that while claiming it is important to them, companies are not measuring the impact of their people policies, such as furloughing and redundancy programmes, on women and ethnic minorities. 

“While HTL leaders are not deliberately taking actions that impact negatively on gender and racial diversity, without measuring impact, it is impossible to know and, indeed, address. Lack of data will act as a key blocker to long-term progress on D&I,” the report says. The message is clear: if you genuinely care about inclusion and diversity, you should be measuring the impact of Covid on it and identifying strategies that can avoid, or mitigate, any negative effects.

The research also found that a higher proportion of women have been furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant than men (65 per cent compared to 56 per cent). This is also true for people from ethnic minorities: 67 per cent have been affected, compared to 62 per cent of their white colleagues.

For Morris, these are worrying statistics. When deciding who gets furloughed, positive discrimination is needed to ensure fairness, she says: “We know more women need furlough because of childcare. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. So rather than apply the same to everyone, we’ve acknowledged that furlough can disproportionately positively impact women because it protects their roles.”

When making the decision, it’s also essential that objective criteria are used to select candidates; that people understand those criteria and the process; and that it’s done transparently, with meaningful consultation. “Genuinely take the employee view into account before making a decision,” says Willmott. “Don’t pay lip service to the process. This is a time when company values are really being tested and employees see whether those values have any substance to them.”

Of course, those who aren’t furloughed are still working hard in challenging circumstances, and HR professionals may experience internal backlash from those who feel it’s unfair. Morris takes a hard line here, believing it’s important to be clear and assertive. “We’ve taken the attitude that says: ‘Please don’t forget how fortunate you are to have a job,’” she says. “Everyone has their own version of ‘unfair’, but 26,000 of our colleagues are feeding and caring for people in Covid hospitals right now, and we need to remember that.”

Are you providing opportunities for young people?

The under-25s are among those most likely to see a negative impact on their careers thanks to Covid. Indeed, a YouGov poll for social mobility charity The Sutton Trust found that 61 per cent of employers have cancelled some or all of their work experience placements during the pandemic, and a study from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Exeter University found young people in the UK are more than twice as likely to lose their jobs because of the economic fallout from the pandemic.

To combat this, employers need to make sure they at least maintain existing opportunities for graduates and young people – even if they’re available remotely. Some, such as Aviva, recognise the importance of young talent to the future success of the company, and are still providing placements. “We’ve carried on with internships and graduate schemes, making them all virtual early on,” says Harmer.

However, mindful of the lack of learning by observation that naturally happens in the office, the firm has bolstered these programmes with additional mentoring and virtual meetings with senior leaders. “There are some advantages to this. Because meetings are online and don’t require travel, we’ve had more senior input than we usually would,” she says. “Young people also feel more confident about raising questions – partly because they can do it using the chat function.”

Could you allocate work more fairly?

With some employees in the office and some remote, ensuring tasks are distributed fairly is even trickier. Sarah Jackson, visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management, has undertaken significant research into sharing out work equitably in law firms. Historically, firms would give women the opportunity to work flexibly from home but found that, because of the often informal way work was allocated, women would miss out. “The senior team would just allocate the work to the person in the office – usually a man,” she says.

But overcoming this is relatively straightforward: create a resource pool and plan the allocation of work based on data. “Use a team-based approach and working practice,” she says. “That way you can address the problem of perceived unfairness. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet – it just needs proactive thought.”

Can you offer flexibility to those unable to work from home?

Yes, Covid has revolutionised our attitudes towards working from home and what it means to work flexibly. However, one of the dangers of HR focusing so much on home-based workers is overlooking those employees who can’t, and the fact that they also need fair flexibility. There is the risk, says Willmott, of a “two-tier workforce”: “We know there’s been this shift to people working from home, but that’s only one aspect. Evidence from our research on embedding new ways of working suggests that employers haven’t been thinking about how to optimise flexible working for others who can’t work from home.”

The issue is front of mind for Dr Stephen Moir, executive director of resources at The City of Edinburgh Council. “That sense of segmentation is something we need to guard against because it has the potential to lead to a fragmentation of the organisational culture and a very pronounced sense of ‘them vs us’,” he says. 

To ensure those who can’t work from home can also benefit from better flexibility, Willmott suggests looking at offering options such as annualised, term time or compressed hours, or considering a job share.

For those who can work from home, fairness is about ensuring the basics are in place. Do employees have the right equipment to work from home? Have you done health and safety risk assessments? Have you been clear about what expenses can be claimed? And then there’s the less clear-cut considerations, such as how employees are mentally coping with the challenges of working at home, especially if they are in creative jobs that require more collaboration.

This can lead to difficult decisions, the rationale of which have to be explained. For instance, Moir decided not to pay home workers for additional costs they incur, such as utility bills. “From a fairness perspective, we decided not to. While everyone has an equally important contribution to make, we already have differences in levels of pay for different jobs that are equality proofed, but it isn’t justifiable to make that divide greater and to potentially advantage home-based workers more than some of our key frontline workers.”

Are potential recruits being treated equally?

This new world of work has shed light on people’s personal circumstances like never before – whether that’s children and pets making guest appearances in meetings, or just getting a window into their home life thanks to their video call backdrop. But this new insight into everyone’s lives outside work also allows us to make judgements about someone far more easily, and so permitting potential biases to creep in – particularly during virtual recruitment processes.

During a face-to-face interview or assessment, there are comparatively fewer elements around which to subconsciously judge someone – clothing, haircut and accent, to name but three. However, with a window into their personal life, the chances for bias increase: small things like someone’s living room decor, the books on their bookshelf or the presence of children’s toys could lead recruiters to jump to conclusions about a candidate.

And while these things shouldn’t affect our perceptions of a potential recruit, HR professionals and recruiting managers need to keep them front of mind to ensure they don’t begin to sway decision making. According to Michele Parmelee, Deloitte’s global chief people and purpose officer, leaders must “challenge your own assumptions; every person and situation deserves to be understood without preconceived notions of what you may consider ‘typical’”, she wrote in a recent blog for the company.

Does your workforce have the same development opportunities?

With all learning and development efforts being forced online in the wake of Covid, as well as the obvious limitations of turning formal face-to-face training virtual, a major concern is employees missing out on informal learning from others, which happens organically when employees work closely together in the same environment. This is particularly crucial for younger workers with less experience, who stand to be disadvantaged by this lack of in-person knowledge sharing. Many companies are trying to address this gap through initiatives such as online mentoring or buddying.

However, some organisations have actually found that, by moving their L&D online, the playing field has become more level across their workforces. Food brand Leon, for instance, has gamified its training programme, which has come into its own during the pandemic. Launched during lockdown to use the time to teach new skills, more than 85 per cent of employees were able to complete it in the first six weeks. This translated into 39,000 playthroughs of training scenarios across 12 modules, including 3D creations of in-restaurant situations with characters and dialogue. Managing director Shereen Ritchie says this solution is actually better than the manuals and face-to-face training used previously, because it is so easily scalable and makes training “exciting”, with the competitive element hugely boosting engagement.

Is your remuneration fair and transparent?

Many organisations are likely to have at least some discrepancies in reward or remuneration, for myriad reasons, and ironing these out is neither a quick nor simple task. But in the meantime, it’s important to be open and transparent and communicate the reasons behind them. This is particularly true when it comes to communicating about executive remuneration. “You have to explain why decisions have been made,” says Willmott. “Why are they proportionate? How are they linked to contribution and performance and the pay of the wider organisation?”

What is HR’s role in a fairer working world?

No one is doubting the detrimental impact the coronavirus pandemic has had – including in the world of work. But with this has come a reassessment of our lives and new appreciation for the ‘human’ aspect of human resources. “Previously, things like redundancy, pay reviews and promotion have been processes,” says Morris. “Someone signs a form, and ticks a box, and it happens or it doesn’t happen. There’s a much more human side to these processes now. There’s a huge personal effort being put in to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that processes are fair. To me, that’s the extraordinary difference in this pandemic.”

Covid has also prompted her to think of fairness at a societal level. For example, there has been much talk about ensuring HR isn’t biased in its selection process, but this doesn’t address the fact that the pipeline often isn’t broadly representative in the first place. People from hotspots of poor social mobility, for example, can’t get into the pipeline because they can’t fulfil the application requirements. And, given that Covid appears to be unfairly disadvantaging women, ethnic minorities and people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the inequality divide looks set to get wider. 

Morris believes that now is the ideal time to address these systemic issues because “we’re at the tipping point of society revaluing jobs like nurses, cleaners, care assistants and porters”. With this newfound appreciation for so-called ‘key’ workers, she wants to make it easier and fairer for everyone – especially those from areas with poor social mobility – to be able to enter these careers. 

As an employer of thousands of key workers in roles such as cleaners, chefs, security guards, porters and hospital ward assistants, Compass is planning to set up an academy in Stratford in east London – an area with one of the lowest levels of social mobility – to train tens of thousands of apprentices and entry-level students every year, with no barriers to entry. “All candidates must have is the right attitude and a desire to learn,” she says.

But how can the HR profession help elsewhere, especially among those businesses that don’t employ these types of ‘essential’ workers? Think about strategy in terms of a ‘small S’ and a ‘big S’, Morris advises – ie roll up your sleeves and do the day to day, as well as thinking about the bigger picture. “Stuff the redundancy pack envelopes. Help on the mental health helpline. Do the operational stuff,” she says. “Your organisation needs you to do this right now, but it also needs you to keep one eye on where we’re going in the future.”

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