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Sir Brendan Barber: What feels fair?

Tuesday 25 August 2015

What is fairness? Is your definition the same as that of your colleague? Your boss? Your member of staff? Sir Brendan Barber suggests teams work together to agree 'contracts of behaviour', focused on the positives.

Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog

Fairness is one of Acas' seven levers of workplace productivity and while it may be difficult to define, it is still worth paying careful attention to. As our recent report on productivity says, "what 'feels fair' will vary from person to person, and from one workplace to another." But where there is a sense of fairness and of general wellbeing in the workplace, this encourages a more productive working environment.

The reason for this is easy enough to grasp. As Gus O'Donnell, Chair of the Commission on Wellbeing and Policy, has put it - the answer to the question "why would an employer take the wellbeing of the employees into account?" is simply this: "because it affects their performance".

The recent series of blogs we hosted on promoting equality at work made me reflect on the difficulties of defining 'fairness'. Of course, some would argue that the Equality Act goes a long way to defining 'unfairness' when it comes to equality, by prohibiting certain kinds of behaviour for those with 'protected characteristics'.

Acas has recently been taking a look at bullying at work: analysing the causes, considering the impacts, and identifying good practice in responses. We will be publishing our findings in November. Some feedback we have been getting from callers to our helpline, and from our own advisors, is that bullying, like fairness, is a very broad term that covers a huge variety of behaviours and is often clouded by perceptions.

An early thought to emerge is that rather than solely trying to deal with incidences of bullying when they happen, workplaces should focus as much on encouraging the positive cultures and behaviours that make bullying less likely.

The debate about whether to use (formal or informal) regulation or some form of 'consensual nudge', in order to create the right working environment, is one Acas has been involved in for some time.

We need policies and procedures, because people need to feel protected, and they provide a framework for managing situations. But perhaps what constitutes fairness should be a question considered by employees themselves. For example, why not get teams or groups of employees to come up with 'contracts of behaviour' that everyone signs up to? I can't claim this is my idea or that it is particularly new. But it strikes me that as managers and staff become more familiar with equality and diversity at work, we need to start focussing on the good behaviour as much as the bad.

I was especially struck by a comment made by Paul Deemer, Head of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights at NHS Employers, in a recent Acas blog in which he spoke of his pride in the 'NHS constitution', which sets out the organisation's core values. What about workplaces having internal constitutions that make it clear what is and what is not acceptable - a template that allows workplaces to determine what is both fair and felt to be fair?

Read other blogs in our productivity series

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