the hidden currency of the workplace

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Ssome videos are almost certain to go viral: wild animals stealing food from unsuspecting families, cars crashing through the windows of crowded cafes, pilots trying to land planes in strong winds. Some are less obvious candidates to ricochet around the internet. Take, for example, the case of Brittany Pietsch, whose recording of a call in which she was fired from a tech company called Cloudflare went viral last month.

The recording lasts nine minutes, shows no one except Ms. Pietsch and contains words like “performance improvement plan.” Despite these unpromising ingredients, it publicizes a moment of human drama that could happen to almost any employee. It also appeals to a basic human instinct. Regardless of the pros and cons of Ms. Pietsch's firing, the manner in which she was fired, in a summary call with two people she had never met before and for reasons that are never properly explained , seems unfair. And few things matter more to people than fairness.

In experiments where one person decides how to split an amount of money with another, recipients will consistently reject an offer if they feel they are being given too little, even if that means neither party receives any money . A fair share matters more than free money. Fairness is also important in non-financial life. A 2012 study by Nicholas Wright of University College London deliberately made some participants thirsty by hooking them up to a saline drip; they would always reject other participants' offers of water if they felt they were being offered too little.

Given the importance humans place on fairness, it makes sense for managers to think about it too. Indeed, questions of fairness arise almost everywhere in the workplace – not only when people lose their jobs, but also about who gets hired, who gets credit when things go well, and who has this very beautiful desk right next to the window.

Fairness is not just a concern of workers. Last month, a Delaware judge ruled against Elon Musk's attractive compensation package at Tesla on the grounds that it was unfair to shareholders. A recent study on CEO Alex Edmans of London Business School and his co-authors found that bosses also care about fairness. Money is not just about what it can buy; CEOThey believe that it is only fair to be rewarded for better performance and paid in line with their peers. A sense of fairness can simultaneously increase bosses' wages and fuel anger about it.

Customers also appreciate fairness, especially when it comes to pricing. Consumers are instinctively reluctant to raise prices in response to growing demand, whether it's Uber fares on a busy night, face masks during a pandemic, or snow shovels the night after a big storm. Such views are deeply rooted. A recent article by Casey Klofstad and Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami asked Floridians for their views on anti-price gouging legislation that would prevent stores from raising prices after a hurricane. Even when told that economists and other experts believed mandatory price caps would exacerbate shortages and lead to store closures, those surveyed supported the law. (Depending on your point of view, this either proves that the public is irrational or that economists are not human.)

Most often, opinions differ. The covid-19 pandemic, for example, has drawn a new line between people who can and regularly work from home, and those who must travel to the office and workplace due to the nature of their work . For many, this corrects old injustices: the ability to work from home makes it easier for single parents to combine childcare and work. For others, it reinforces existing inequalities: the poorest and least skilled workers are disproportionately likely to be those who have no choice about where to work.

This combination of salience and subjectivity makes fairness a tricky area for managers to address, but not impossible. No hiring decision will seem right if qualified employees don't even know a job is open; a 2021 survey of 3,000 job seekers by Gartner, a research firm, found that half were unaware of internal career opportunities. No dismissal will seem fair if it is too impersonal; by Cloudflare CEO agreed that Ms. Pietsch's manager should have responded to the call in which she was fired. Even if people differ on what constitutes the right outcome, they can generally agree on what constitutes a fair process. That's more than half the battle.

Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist:
Jürgen Klopp and the importance of energy (January 29)
Why you should never retire (January 25)
Companies run at their annual pace (January 18)

Also: How Bartleby Column got its name

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