Ombud’s Corner: “It’s not fair…”

The perception of unfair treatment in the workplace can often lead to conflict and a sense of demotivation, which ultimately leaves us feeling discouraged and helpless. What are some of the strategies that would allow managers to prevent or limit the risk of allowing these situations to develop or, on the other hand, as colleagues facing these circumstances, to cope with these feelings and to move on?


‘Life is unfair’ is the response that we tend to hear in such situations, often accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders that suggests that we are exaggerating, and should just accept this as an unavoidable part of life! This statement, although widely repeated, brings little comfort to people who are struggling to make sense of a decision that has left them with a bitter sense of injustice or rejection. On the contrary, it only serves to amplify the feelings of anger or frustration generated by a perception of unfair treatment, which, if allowed to fester, may lead to diminished morale and potentially affect the performance of entire teams.

This feeling of unfairness is often triggered when our expectations are not met. Such situations typically arise when we believe we should be selected for a particular role or that we deserve a promotion that is given instead to somebody else. Moreover, if we do not get any clear feedback as to the reasons for this choice, the message we take away is one of rejection: our qualities are not recognised and our work is not fully appreciated. If, in addition to this rejection of our competence, our attempts to share our concerns are shrugged off as being of no interest, the message is amplified into a rejection of our intrinsic value as people and colleagues, with much longer-lasting negative consequences.

A much more effective response for us, as managers, would be to show empathy by acknowledging our colleagues’ disappointment and trying to get to the bottom of their reasons for feeling unfairly treated. But what is it that keeps us from doing this in all cases? Is it because such an action would necessarily force us to re-examine our own decisions and to lay bare the criteria by which we make our choices in an open and transparent fashion? Could it be that we are sometimes not even fully aware of our reasons or that we hesitate to face up to the unconscious biases that may have swayed our judgement? Or could it be, on the other hand, that we believe that we are shielding the other from further disappointment by not revealing the full details underlying our evaluation of the situation?

Whatever the reasons that tempt us to brush off the other’s reactions, if we are able, as managers, to put aside our own concerns, and use the ‘fairness triangle’ to consider all the facts, perspectives and people concerned, particularly when this implies acknowledging feelings and sharing honest feedback, or even re-evaluating our own position and perhaps adjusting our decisions, we stand a much better chance of preserving the relationship, regardless of the final outcome. However, all these actions would require a truly honest commitment on our part as managers to make the best possible decision on objective grounds.

At the other end of the spectrum, what can we do, as colleagues and staff who feel unfairly treated, to manage our disappointment and learn to move on? Of course, we can also trigger the ‘fairness triangle’ and initiate a discussion to seek clarification, put forward our own point of view and try to understand the situation from the manager’s perspective. However, this also implies a genuine willingness to listen and challenge our own thinking in order to understand the full picture: What can we learn about ourselves and how realistic were our own expectations? What can we learn from the choice of the successful candidate and does it point to areas in which we can develop? How can the manager support us in reaching our goals in the future?

Inevitably, despite all these efforts, there will be some situations where these questions bring no satisfying answers and the feeling of unfairness persists - what then? Should we have recourse to the processes that the Organization provides to support us in this case? Do we wish to request an informal mediation with the support of the Ombud? What are the formal review or appeal processes by which we can seek a more equitable outcome? What do these processes entail and how do they fit with our overall goals and values, and at what cost to ourselves? What support do we need in deciding what to do? These are some of the options we need to consider carefully in going forward to seek resolution.

Regardless of the actions that we decide to take, in the final analysis, it is only with integrity, on both sides of the equation, that we can hope to remain true to our personal and Organizational values, and move on!

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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill