How to Respond to Employee Claims of Inequity

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP


It is human nature to compare ourselves to others. It is common for employees to compare themselves, what they do, and how they are rewarded, to the efforts and rewards of employees with whom they work or who hold similar positions. When these comparisons appear inequitable, whether based on objective information or subjective opinion, they will often act in ways that balance the scale.

This is the premise of the Equity Theory of Motivation. Developed by behavioral psychologist John Stacey Adams, the theory postulates that employees will judge the fairness of how they are treated based on how fairly others like them are treated. Employees may draw these comparisons from their group, such as individuals with similar work duties and job titles within the same team or organization, or employees holding similar positions in other organizations. Based on these judgments, employees will continuously seek to balance inputs (what an employee produces) against outputs (What an employee receives in return, such as compensation, benefits, praise and recognition, advancement opportunities, etc.) to ensure fair and equitable treatment for themselves compared to the more favorable treatment they believe others receive.

For example, in theory, if an employee believes she does more work, spends more time, and receives less recognition and compensation than a person in a similar position, she will engage in any number of behaviors to compensate for the inequity, such as reducing effort, do only what is minimally required, produce less quality work in a less timely manner, become resistant or act out in more disruptive ways, or even quit. Whether merely thought or stated outright, we may understand an employee’s implicit utilization of the equity theory through expressions like:

  • “Nothing gets done around here without me, but George gets all the credit.”
  • “Why should I stick my neck out and volunteer for that project? Let Marissa do it. She’s the senior consultant. [said sarcastically]. I’m just a lowly associate.”
  • “Harry gets almost twice the pay I do, but where is he when we have to do this grunt work? Andrea is always letting him off easy.”
  • “It’s no wonder morale is low. Everyone’s leaving to go to (x). If they’re not careful, I’ll be next.”
  • “I’ll take the afternoon off to play golf. They owe me.”

You can’t control what employees think, but you can provide leadership to create an environment that is equitable, responsive to legitimate concerns, and designed to eliminate cause for employees to feel they are treated unfairly. Strive to:

Be consistent and fair. To minimize complaints of inequitable treatment, be equitable in your actions, whether in making assignments, providing coaching and feedback, making compensation recommendations and decisions, or providing professional development and advancement opportunities. There will, of course, be reasons for differentiating your allocation of expectations, opportunities, and rewards based on differentiation in experience, ability, performance, and job duties among employees. An employee who fails to respect your actions can always complain, but this should not concern you if you have sound reasons for your decisions. One additional tip is to consult with peers and professionals such as HR employee relations and total rewards professionals for feedback to help you maintain fairness and consistency.

Respond to legitimate concerns. Whether based on your observation or expressed concerns, change the inputs or outputs as needed to maintain fairness and balance in your distribution of assignments, opportunities, and rewards. For example, if you conclude that you have in fact placed extra burdens on an employee which has created more stress, longer hours, and limited rewards compared to other team members with similar duties, work with all team members to renegotiate assignments to achieve a better balance. Further, if you have put off the often arduous task of seeking reclassification of a hard-working employee, who has legitimately earned a step increase based on taking on tasks beyond initial job expectations, correct this by working with HR, fiscal officers, and others. to implement this long-overdue change.

Be transparent and open about what you can and cannot change. Consistently communicate your openness to employee concerns. When concerns are communicated, acknowledge them and let employees know the extent to which you agree or disagree with claims of inequitable treatment, and why. If your disagreement involves an employee’s performance, offer coaching to help them achieve the level of performance that would warrant the consideration requested. If concerns are legitimate, but policy, fiscal, or systemic constraints limit what you can do now to correct the inequity, be transparent about these realities and keep the employee informed regarding steps you are taking, especially if the process is taking longer than hoped.

Monitor systemic issues and push for change when needed. As many concerns about inequitable treatment involve perceptions of variance in job duties, pay, and rewards among peers, the solution may lie in defined job and performance expectations and pay structures. If job duties have changed over time, it may be time to dust off old job descriptions, revise them, and work with HR to make appropriate adjustments, including advocating for adjustments in pay, job titles, and other factors related to employees’ positions, work, and rewards. While many matters may be within your direct control to change, such as renegotiating job assignments among team members, others will require advocacy with other organizational entities, such as HR and fiscal authorities, to perpetuate change that will achieve balance in equitable treatment within the workforce. .

Seek to educate when perceptions are misguided. Transparency and an open process will address many inequity concerns, as employees see you work diligently to address them. For employees who remain dissatisfied, patiently work with them to demonstrate how their work and the way they are being treated is equitable. For the hopelessly dissatisfied, this may need to turn into a conversation about how the employee is not performing as expected or not able to move from negativity to a more constructive focus on the job. This may come down to choices — whether to adjust an attitude or find opportunities elsewhere.

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