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HR must address ‘complex’ issue of fairness

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HR professionals must address the changing and complex issue of fairness within their organisations, or risk negative impacts on employee engagement, reputation and trust, experts agreed yesterday.

Speaking at an event on organisational fairness at The Work Foundation, Paul Sparrow, director of the Centre for Performance-Led HR at Lancaster University Management School, compared starting a dialogue about fairness to “opening Pandora’s Box”.

But he added: “Does that mean we in HR can duck this issue? No, we cannot.”

Stephen Moir, director of people at NHS England, spoke about the NHS’s struggle with fairness. He said although the NHS constitution is based on the concept of fairness, it was a challenge to cascade it through the organisation.

“Inherent fairness and equity are built into the psyche, but the practicality of doing that in a workplace of 1.7 million people is a challenge,” he said.

He added that employee survey data revealed although most NHS employers are proud to work for the organisation and would recommend it to others, a lower proportion said they felt treated fairly. “There’s a dichotomy between what the NHS stands for and how people feel,” he said. “We have a clear purpose and a committed staff, we need to link the two more closely together.”

Sparrow and Moir also discussed the move from collectivism to individualism in the workplace, and the challenges this raises for HR. This is reflected in the fact that younger workers are less likely to join a trade union. According to 2012 trade union statistics, less than 10% of members are aged 16 to 24.

Moir said he didn’t believe HR was currently equipped to deal with more individualistic relationships and contracts. “HR needs to up-skill to be as good at negotiation as our trade union colleagues,” he said, adding that any work on formal HR standards need to reflect these skills.

Sparrow is currently seeking case studies for further research around organisational fairness with the CIPD, a follow-up to the 2013 report The Changing Contours of Fairness. “This is an important agenda and it’s time to have a discussion,” he said.