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Why “Fairness” Consistently Scores Low in Engagement Surveys


When we measure employee engagement, there’s one employee engagement driver that seems to continuously score low for companies across the board — Fairness.

It’s led us to ask some foundational questions: Why is this? Is it a problem with engagement at each company or a fundamental concern among all workers?

Fairness is defined by two factors:

  1. The treatment of an employee inside an organization
  2. Rewards and compensation within an organization

Notice it says inside an organization. It’s impossible to measure Fairness across organizations due to size, industry, etc. It’s not “apples to apples.” Keeping our measurement of Fairness to within an organization is key.

Results we typically see in the Fairness category

Fairness usually scores in the lower third for engagement drivers in most organizations. It is more likely to trend even farther down for companies with low engagement. Fairness is tricky, because “life isn’t fair,” and lots of employees have an axe to grind on Fairness, or they have a jaded view of it, so we have to dial in and get very specific on the definition. By getting specific with our questions to organizations, we can glean actionable insights.

We do this by making survey statements (that people can respond to on the Likert scale) like:

  • Decisions here about people are made using a fair process.
  • I feel the rewards I get are equitable given the work I do.
  • In general, the rewards I receive in this organization are fair.
  • Overall, I feel this organization is just and fair in the way it treats employees.

The Fairness driver pushes leaders at our customer organizations to have a discussion on policy and changes for compensation and recognition. They have to get to the root of the problem by asking themselves questions like:

  • Are there departments that interact with each other that have vastly different compensation?
  • Have there been recent promotions where the promotion was not widely recognized and explained?

When we see low scores, most frequently it’s when organizations have room for improvement in recognizing employees’ hard work. Fairness results usually show areas where leadership decisions were not articulated and there is a lack of awareness.

People want to be recognized for their good work. We have a deep desire to be recognized even with small things. Lots of companies try to solve this with pay, but it’s not that simple.

How do you help organizations solve the fairness problem?

When we see a low score in Fairness, there is a line of questioning we use to determine the underlying problem. We use qualitative questions to target the root of the problem.

Our line of thought here is, “We noticed the Fairness driver is lowest for you. We define it this way. What do you think we can do to improve this in your department?” This can help us work to draw out underlying themes.

More often than not, this turns up something like, “Bill was promoted for no reason.” This lets executives know that their team needs more clarity into why Bill was promoted, and what they are looking for when determining promotions.

Another essential element is a recognition program. And this program really needs to have two tiers:

  1. Peer recognition
  2. Executive recognition

Peer Recognition

Start a “Cheers for Peers” program. This is an opportunity for peers to recognize their co-workers for a job well done on a daily basis. A well-placed compliment helps employees feel validated and that they are treated well.

Executive Recognition

employee recognition

At Emplify, the Core Value Legends award is given annually to one employee by executives for outstanding contributions to the company.

  1. The executive recognition piece should be an annual award related to company core values. Anyone that has been cheered by their peers should be entered to win this award. The key is that this individual is chosen by executives, not peers. This is one of the best ways to live out your company mission.
  2. In addition to recognition, clarity is the key to avoiding a low score in Fairness. When promotions happen, tell people why in a public way. List out the individual’s accomplishments and reasons why they are receiving it. This public recognition will help people understand why the individual is getting the promotion, and what they can do to get a promotion.
  3. Finally, watch out for the neglected team. Every organization has one — they get work piled on them and/or are overlooked for recognition. Sometimes, these teams are not identified until the employee engagement survey. Make sure you are recognizing ALL teams.

What about Fairness on multi-generational teams?

This is where the importance of 1:1 relationships and meeting with supervisors is key. It’s hard to standardize Fairness. But open, frequent conversations between managers and team leaders are extremely important.

Manager relationship and feedback are drivers that 15Five measures. In our experience, the cadence of 1:1 manager meetings is vital, and goes hand-in-hand with quick feedback — be it constructive or positive. Coaching people managers on how to do this is of equal importance. Managers need to know what to talk with their teams about, how frequently they should be holding 1:1 meetings, etc.

Overall, scoring low on Fairness is a warning sign for organizations. A low score in Fairness provides a great opportunity to stick your neck out, make a change, and say, “Hey, we heard you, we are doing something about it, and you can tell us if it’s working.” The companies that listen to their Fairness results and take a chance to make a change are the companies that will improve.

How would your organization score on Fairness? We’d love to help you find out. Let’s chat!



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