When you have to deliver bad news, the processes you use are at least as important as the decision you’ve made.
Take this example: The car manufacturing industry in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia is in the process of ceasing manufacturing and moving to an importing business. Over the next few years, thousands of jobs will be lost or transformed. Progress and change are inevitable, and the transition has been reluctantly accepted by most people. However, I was really surprised–when the first major round of layoffs occurred a few weeks ago at a manufacturer–to hear the local trades union representative complimenting the factory management on the way it had handled the decision of who should go now, who had a job for a few more months and who would be relocated into the new import business.
The key factor was not the decision or its fairness. The key was the empathy and consideration shown to each of the laid-off workers by their management, and the fact that the members of the management team (most of whom would be losing their jobs as well) had taken the time to speak with each worker and appreciate his or her input to the business over many years.
By applying “process fairness” and giving everyone a chance to be heard, what could have been a very angry and disruptive event was transformed into a wake to remember the good times and the contributions made by the industry. It was still a sad and stressful time, but far less so than it might otherwise have been.
So what is process fairness and why is it important?
Process fairness is quite distinct from outcome fairness. Outcome fairness refers to judgments made about the final outcome. In this case, it is unfair to lose your job after 20 or 30 years due to a combination of factors largely outside of anyone’s control. Process fairness is aligned with the concepts of procedural fairness and natural justice, and particularly applies to decisions affecting the team leader/team member (or manager/employee) relationship. Broadly speaking, there are three intertwined components of process fairness:
- How much input team members believe they have in the decision-making process. Are their opinions requested and given serious consideration?
- How team members believe decisions are made and implemented. Are they consistent? Are they based on accurate information? Can mistakes be corrected? Are the personal biases of the decision-maker minimized? Is ample advance notice given? Is the decision process transparent?
- How managers behave. Do they explain why a decision was made? Do they treat employees respectfully, actively listening to their concerns and empathizing with their points of view?
Process fairness makes a big difference! A study of nearly 1,000 people–led by U.S. researchers E. Allan Lind and Jerald Greenberg (and cited in the bookManager’s Desktop Consultant)–found that a major determinant of whether employees sue for wrongful termination is their perception of how fairly the termination process was carried out. Only 1 percent of ex-employees who felt they were treated with a high degree of process fairness filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, versus 17 percent of those who believed they were treated with a low degree of process fairness. Similar results can be found for patients suing doctors and customers suing businesses.
Process fairness doesn’t ensure team members will always get what they want or that the final decision is “fair”–but it does ensure they will have a chance to be heard. It is also highly likely that a decision-maker who follows a fair process will reach a fair and correct decision.
Fairness demands that the affected people are told about the impending decision and are given the chance to reply before a decision that negatively affects their existing interest or legitimate expectations is made. Put simply, hearing both sides of the story is critical to good decision-making and happier team members.
There are six rules that apply to procedural justice (or natural justice), and they equally affect procedural fairness:
- Bias suppression
Process fairness in the workplace and in communication simply requires fairness to everyone–that is, when something is applied, it has to be applied to everyone and procedures need to be consistent with moral and ethical values.
So next time you have to make a decision that affects your team, rather than trying to make the best decision on your own, tell the members about the decision and the reasons it needs to be made, ask for their input and take the time to listen. Once you have reached your decision, explain the reasons clearly and leave space for feedback, particularly from anyone the decision will hurt. You may be surprised by the support you get from everyone.
Do you think your decision-making process is fair?