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HR Handled Right

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My oldest son was born at 12:11 a.m. on New Year’s Day, 1995. Because I had gone into labor 22 hours earlier, my ob-gyn had optimistically assumed she would be ringing in the New Year with a glass of champagne and arrive at the hospital in full cocktail attire. As the evening progressed (and my labor did not), she became grumpier and grumpier, at one point frustratingly accusing me of “not trying hard enough” to speed things along. By the time she realized a Caesarian section was a medical necessity, the damage to our relationship had been done.

Up to that point, I felt listened to, respected, and cared for. And yet, seven years later, I still harbor a grudge. Her insensitive behavior at a critical point – a time I felt particularly scared and vulnerable – quickly eradicated any positive history we shared.

The same is true of employment relationships. There are critical periods in the employee/employer relationship that carry extra weight in terms of how they impact employee perceptions of fairness, employee turnover and the filing of employee claims. In this article, we’ll examine the critical periods in an employment relationship and what employers can do to create an ongoing sense of organizational fairness and employee commitment.

Who Cares About Playing Fair?

“It’s not fair.” If I’ve heard that phrase once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. And, while children seem to be the ones to verbalize it, concerns about fairness are something we never outgrow. In an organization, it is a critical predictor of a number of employee behaviors. Organizational commitment, trust in coworkers and supervisors, and the perceived legitimacy of organizational hierarchy and policy are all attitudes that seem especially affected by fairness judgments. On the flip side, perceptions of unfair treatment have been linked to workplace assaults, company theft, and the likelihood of filing an employment lawsuit.

Perceptions of fairness are particularly important in team-based organizations. While raw individualized performance is not likely to be affected by fairness judgments, performance to organizational goals, team performance, and organizational citizenship behaviors are more strongly affected by fairness, as will behaviors that turn on the acceptance of organizational hierarchy. Fair treatment, it seems, leads to a shift from responding to work situations in terms of immediate self-interest to responding to social situations as a member of the larger social entity.

The Bonding Period: First Impressions Matter

If you took a psychology class in high school or college, odds are you learned about imprinting; i.e., how newly hatched ducks and goslings will become socially bonded to the first moving object they encounter. This bond seemed to only develop during a brief “critical period” in the first day or so after hatching; if the baby duck missed the opportunity to bond, it was lost forever. While humans are much more complex, it seems that new hires have a “critical period,” too, particularly when it comes to forming ideas about organizational fairness. Forty-five percent of employees who decide to voluntarily terminate their employment relationship decide to do during the first ninety days of employment. In short, they fail to bond.

When new employees are deciding how much to invest in the employment relationship, they use fairness judgments as decision shortcuts. These fairness judgments form early and quickly in the employment relationship and then are simply accessed, rather than revised, unless there is some clear and substantial indication of change in the relationship. Thus, it may be assumed that fairness-relevant information has especially strung effects on fairness judgments when it is occurring. In fact, the first relevant information will exercise the greatest influence on feelings of overall fair treatment.

Experiments that have varied fairness treatment confirm the importance of first interactions. For example, even though participants received the same number of positive and negative fairness experiences, those who encountered the unfair experience in their relationships with their supervisor viewed the supervisor as much more unfair than did those who encountered the unfair experience later. It seems that early fairness judgments are especially potent and there is a substantial level of inertia in changing these judgments.

We now know that imprinting occurs in many species, including humans, and that it involves much more plastic and forgiving mechanisms than were initially claimed by Lorenz. However, the first impression is still a strong one, and savvy human resource executives capitalize on this new hire bonding opportunity by creating a new employee orientation program that is most likely to inspire organizational loyalty and commitment.

New Hire Bonding Strategies

1. Make sure your new hire orientation program lasts at least ninety days.

2. Consider setting up a new-hire mentoring program during which a seasoned employee is available to answer questions, introduce the new hire to his or her peer group, and acquaint him or her with informal networks.

3. If you have a diverse employee base, spend extra time indoctrinating new hires into your corporate culture, instilling corporate values, and getting them involved in social groups. Companies like Nokia, with 48 countries represented at one location, overcome many of their multicultural challenges by teaching new employees the “Nokian way.”

4. Teach your managers’ interpersonal skills, with a specific emphasis on how to establish performance agreements, mentor and coach new hires, and communicating various career tracts at the outset of employment.

Getting Back into the Judgmental Phase

While the new hire period is certainly a critical period for the development of organizational loyalty and commitment, organizations with strong employee orientation programs can’t just rest on their laurels. It’s true that, during relatively stable periods, fairness judgments are often used in a mindless manner to interpret events without reassessing the judgment in light of ongoing experiences. However, when things change, new fairness-relevant information is revisited.

In particular, there are two events that trigger employees to get back into the judgmental phase: 1) signs that the relationship in question is changing and/or 2) when the employee encounters fairness relevant information or events that fall far outside what would be expected from the existing fairness impression. For example, a change in leadership, a merger, or restructuring is a signal that the employer-employee relationship may be changing and is likely to put employees back in mode. Or, let’s say that an employee, whose warm-and-fuzzy-and-effective manager just retired, gets a new manager who starts off the relationship with a tough “you’re either in or you’re out” speech and gives the employee a 24-hour deadline to decide. This behavior is likely to spark a quick reassessment of the employee’s initial fairness assessment. In other words, it shifts the employee’s frame of reference.

It is probably no accident that savvy organizational politicians realize that one of the few ways to forge a new relationship with a widely disaffected workforce is to undertake some radical change in the leadership or structure of the organization. Newly hired human resource professionals can build credibility with managers and human resource experiences by taking the time to explore their internal customers’ past experience with previously employed human resource staff. If the professional learns that a previous HR staff member had loose lips, for instance, s/he should take great pains to demonstrate the “new” privacy policy – without, of course, badmouthing the former gossiper.

Transitional Bonding Strategies:

1. Take extra effort during corporate transitions to keep employees informed, explain executive decisions, and to give employees as much control as possible over decisions that personally impact them.

2. If layoffs are necessary, give employees as much notice as possible and, if possible, find ways to cushion or reduce their financial hardship.

Interrupted Bonding: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda Judgments of Inappropriate Behavior

Imagine your average employee arriving at work one morning. As s/he walks by to grab some coffee, s/he overhears his or her manager make a mildly racist remark during a private phone conversation. Legal implications aside, is this employee likely to personally hold the supervisor accountable for this behavior, even when the manager clearly did not intend for anyone else to hear?

It depends. When employees are considering whether or not to hold a manager accountable for his or her behavior, they evaluate whether the manager would, could and should have behaved differently. First, the employee must perceive that the behavior was inappropriate or aversive, second, the employee must believe that the manager choosing to behave in this way and had clearly feasible alternatives, and third, the aversive action must violate some ethical principle of interpersonal conduct. Parents ordinarily do not, for instance, consider a neurologist unfair because she orders a painful spinal tap to rule out meningitis – even if the test is negative. Though the treatment may hurt their child in the short run, the physician has behaved in an ethically fair manner and therefore is not found guilty of a charge of injustice.

Of course, these same parents may hold the technician accountable if the tap is poorly administered or if s/he scolds or ridicules the child for being tearful or afraid. This points to the “could” part of the equation, i.e., could the person have done something differently?

When people answer this question, they try to assess whether or not an alternative action was feasible and viable. If it is not, then to some extent the employee is likely to conclude that the manager did not have other reasonable choices available. In the past, numerous employees have let sales managers off the hook for holding meetings at strip bars because they perceived that, in certain industries, this was an inevitable part of the sales process.

In many situations, it’s the “should” that makes the difference in the perception of fairness. For instance, suppose that your performance appraisal ratings were not as high as you had hoped. However, your boss treated you well during the annual performance review. Perhaps your boss listened carefully to your viewpoint, gave specific examples to justify his or her ratings, and treated you with the utmost sensitivity throughout. How do you feel about your supervisor?

If research is any indication, you probably will not feel unfairly treated by your supervisor. In fact, you may well have a high opinion of your manager and remain highly committed to your employer. Yes, you know the manager could have been more lenient. Yes, you know it would have felt better if s/he would have given you higher ratings. The missing vote in the unfairness verdict though, involves what should have transpired. Because the manager treated you the way s/he should have, you feel fairly treated even though the outcome was less than you desired.

Bonding Repair Strategies:

1. Train your managers on how to effectively hold discipline and termination meetings. Research consistently shows that the manner in which an employee is involuntarily terminated is twice as influential in predicting whether or not s/he fires a wrongful termination claim as any other variable.

2. If you want to increase employee retention and commitment, make sure your managers understand what behavior is appropriate at work – not just what is illegal. In addition, because of the increasing media attention on harassment/discrimination claims, the standard by which management behavior is judged has risen; managers need to understand the legal and practical implications of this change.

The Bottom Line

I started off this article with a personal story about the negative impact of a poorly handled interpersonal situation. I can also tell you hundreds of positive ones, such as the employee who spent his lunch hour telling me about his manager’s concern when he suffered a stroke 8 years before, or the executive who stayed after a briefing to talk about the powerful influence of his first manager. Human resource professionals can not only help managers build the interpersonal skills they need to build employee and commitment, they can directly impact employees during critical periods when perceptions of fairness and organizational loyalty is at stake.

Film producer Samuel Goldwyn once said, “I’ll take 50 percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty.” By developing strategies for helping employees through critical bonding periods, and teaching managers to avoid behaviors that create perceptions of unfairness, organizations can get 100 percent of both.

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