Fairness and Rationality at Work

Half of the British workforce experienced unreasonable treatment, the first factor identified in the introduction to Part Two, in the two years before our survey. Nearly a quarter experienced three or more different kinds of unreasonable behaviour, and one in 10 put up with five or more kinds.1 It was unreasonable treatment, rather than disrespect or violence, which employees were more likely to say had the most effect on them. Of the six types of negative experience that they said had the most impact, four were types of unreasonable treatment. Having an unmanageable workload was said to have the most effect by more than one in five of those experiencing ill-treatment and, having their views ignored was mentioned by one in 10.

Unreasonable treatment can threaten well-being; for example, it can frustrate employees' efforts to increase earnings, achieve promotion or make their working hours a better fit with the rest of their lives. Yet unreasonable treatment did not have the worst effects on employees' health or well-being (including their finances and their relations with family and friends) in our survey. As we shall see in Chapter 3, disrespect generally had worse effects than either unreasonable treatment or violence in the workplace. We cannot therefore be certain what people meant by saying unreasonable treatment had the biggest impact – 'impact' might, for some, even be a positive thing – but we strongly suspect that many employees felt that unreasonable treatment had the biggest impact on how they spent their time and on what they learnt about themselves and their workplace. Employers measure this impact with concepts such as 'organisational commitment' and 'employee engagement' – the kind of thing they have in mind is illustrated by the views of several employees we discuss in the qualitative studies in the second half of the book. They said that, where they had once been proud to dedicate their working lives to their employer, they were now thoroughly demoralised by the unreasonable treatment they had received.

Research evidence confirms that British employees have a strong expectation that employers should behave rationally (Fevre, Grainger and Brewer 2010). They expect employers to set them goals and help them identify means to achieve them (Walker and Fincham 2011). These can be internal goals, such as the most efficient use of human or non-human resources, or external goals like the provision of a quality service or product. Both kinds of goals are frequently quoted in company websites and literature, in employee training and as part of performance management. For example, amongst its many goals, Transport for London promises to 'ensure that its staff are competent to perform their roles' but also to 'maintain robust systems for identifying and evaluating all significant risks'. British Telecom promises to 'create a diverse and inclusive work environment' and to design 'sustainable products and services that help our customers to effectively tackle social and environmental challenges'.

People do not like it when their expectations of rationality in the workplace are not met. Psychological research shows that employees have greater job satisfaction2 when they are clear about what they are supposed to be doing – and this will involve knowing who they report to, and who reports to them, as well as what their duties are – and get recognition for doing it well (see the discussions of job/role conflicts and particularly Roscigno, Lopez and Hodson 2009 in Chapter 1). Unreasonable treatment has the potential to disrupt all of this cognitive underpinning of job satisfaction. We suspect that this is an important factor in the thinking that led employees to say unreasonable treatment had the biggest impact on them.

Our case studies illustrated some of the effects people had in mind; for example employees told us of the frustration they felt at not getting the information they needed to do their jobs properly. In this extract from one of our interview transcripts, a Banco employee, a man in his fifties, illustrated his frustration at the futility of rules regarding the use of his mobile telephone that interfered not only with his ability to do his job well but also ultimately cost the company business:

I have to have a company mobile; I can't have my own anymore. Now I have got hundreds of clients, thousands of clients who have got my mobile number, but I can't have that because when I leave I am [allegedly] going to take all these clients with me. What a load of rubbish. So I have had rows with them, so now I have got a company mobile, a flipping great lump in my pocket. Nobody rings the company one, they ring this one [his personal mobile] because that is the number I have given them, and if I divert the calls from this one to that one it costs me money.

The irrationality of this kind of treatment was maddening, and it could be equally maddening trying to achieve the objectives set by employers if employees were given unrealistic deadlines or no clear order of priorities. A female doctor in her forties described her frustration with irrational management expectations working for Westshire NHS (National Health Service) Trust:

And so X is overbooking clinics and keeps going on at us about doing more work, we're not hitting our targets, we've got to hit our targets, we've got to do some overtime. And waiting list initiatives are becoming, you know, what they're supposed to be, occasional extras. Yet I'm signed up to do every Saturday morning between here and the summer. I think it's unreasonable that … And if you don't do it there's an implied management pressure. I said, 'Well you haven't tried to help us out with our waiting list targets. Why the bloody hell should I give up my Saturday mornings?' But I have done because my patients are suffering. And my patients are suffering because Westshire won't employ enough doctors and nurses and clinics and things like that. I mean when I say doctors, they won't employ enough staff to get through the work. And that has definitely got worse over the last couple of years. But it's because the waiting times' targets have come down [i.e. government required hospitals to reduce patients' waiting times].

Sometimes employees were incensed because they believed that what had happened to them was illegal or, at the least, a flagrant breach of procedure, but more often they commented on the unfairness of what had happened to them. They knew of other employees who were not treated in this way – who were not denied recognition, who were not ignored, for example – and could not see a reason for it. At Banco, a young Asian male in his twenties outlined his frustrations at not being recognised for going the extra mile:

I mean the problem that I do have is, sometimes, I don't like the fact you don't get recognised well. It's like, I make use of my languages, when a claim comes through if the person can't speak Asian, Punjabi, Urdu, Chinese, I'll speak to them. And once I've cleared that call they are very thankful, I feel very happy but that's it. Who else is to know what I've done? What have I achieved? It's not like the company would have done it without me helping because there is another Chinese person who works here, but he can't speak Chinese so he always asks for my help. So in that sense I would like to be recognised.

For many people, the sense of unfairness and irrationality was compounded by a feeling that the organisation they worked for had no way of taking account of them as an individual. For example, they may have felt that they had been a model employee over a long career, and they needed their employer to recall their individual contribution at a difficult time in their lives or in the life of the organisation. If they were looking for 'special' treatment, it was not special in the sense of favouritism or patronage, but special in that it recognised that one employee did not have the same gifts, or values, as another. In some particularly difficult cases, individual treatment did mean that employees had different needs.

The existing literature on dignity at work (Bolton 2007; Hodson 2001; Hoel and Beale 2006; Peyton 2003; Rayman 2001) attempts to theorise some of the issues at stake here. In this literature, dignity is usually conceived as requiring respect (e.g. from an employer), self-respect and, sometimes, a degree of autonomy. We discuss autonomy below, but what this literature tends to leave out is the way in which employees take a great deal of persuasion to be convinced that their employer is not treating them reasonably. We suspect that, especially in the lower levels of organisations, employees believe that, even if they cannot discern the reason for what has happened to them, there must be a reason because the context in which their organisation operates demands it. True, this is more likely to happen in the private sector where (or so people imagine) markets will dictate rational behaviour. The public and third sectors have to rely more on bureaucratic rules, and the judgement of professionals and managers, but there are also public, and even statutory, duties, audit and oversight, to keep such organisations rational (Fevre 2003). For these reasons, employees very often do as they are told while being determined not to reason why they should.

Of course, they do not mind covering some menial tasks because they assume that they are thereby saving on a greater cost that outweighs the temporary loss of their skills to the employer. Nor do they usually mind someone checking up on their work when it is not necessary. It would be nice if the organisation did not judge everyone by the standard of the least productive and competent, but perhaps it is better to be safe than sorry. Nor do employees mind coming in at the weekend now and then to meet an impossible deadline. As a line manager in Strand Global Systems told us, 'some of the guys in the team have been there for 40 years … I guess their expectation is that these things are always going to be late. They're always going to be asked to do something a little bit special.' It takes a significant loss of trust for employees like these to think to question whether their employer had enough people on the payroll to meet its order book.

People higher up in their organisations may be a little more cynical about the power of markets or bureaucratic imperatives to keep their employers rational; nevertheless they expect that, if they can find it anywhere, they will find rational behaviour in the workplace. It is in this light that we should understand people's complaints of unreasonable treatment. Finding that there is no rhyme or reason to decisions, that counterproductive behaviour is rife, that money, time and effort are frittered away, is not what people are meant to find. But when people do begin to believe that they have been unreasonably treated, this is the territory they find themselves in – a strange and unsettling world in which markets and professional managers and public oversight do not apparently make organisations behave rationally – and they often find it both frustrating and upsetting. Most often, they also believe there is nothing they can do to change this. Their frustration at seeing the wrong things done or the right things omitted – service worse than necessary, equipment or talent going to waste – is made keener by their impotence. Indeed, as indicated here, it is with unreasonable treatment that we get most questioning about whether the employer is meeting the external targets set: are they selling the right financial products to people, and are they spending the taxpayers' money wisely?

Figure 4 shows how many employees experienced unreasonable treatment over a two-year period, but it does not tell us whether this was something that happened rarely: working late to maximise sales in the pre-Christmas rush, doing one's own photocopying when one's assistant was on holiday. Most employees thought that their experience of unreasonable treatment had been less frequent than once a month, but a proportion – never less than one in five, and nearly a third for unreasonable workload – of employees' experiences of eight types of unreasonable behaviour were at least weekly, and possibly daily, occurrences.3

Fairness and Rationality at Work

Figure 4 Unreasonable treatment

As we would expect, employers, managers and supervisors were far more likely to be responsible for unreasonable treatment than either co-workers or customers (including clients). For example, we collected data on over 1,300 incidents of unreasonable treatment from those we call the troubled minority.4 About two-thirds of these incidents were blamed on employers, managers and supervisors (from here on we shall call this group 'managers'). The next most important group to which blame was attached for unreasonable treatment was co-workers, but these were a long way behind, accounting for about a fifth of the incidents of unreasonable treatment. Co-workers in particular were likely to be responsible for withholding information which affected performance (perhaps affecting one in 14 employees), pressure to work below one's level of competence (roughly a third of this came from co-workers), and ignoring one's opinions and views. We can surmise from the responses of the troubled minority that they thought some of the unreasonable treatment by colleagues resulted from the way the organisation was run. It would be a little misleading to call unreasonable treatment 'unreasonable management', but only a little.

Analysis of interviews with the troubled minority showed that most unreasonable treatment came from serial troublemakers, most of whom were men. Because most managers are men,5 male troublemakers could be expected when the troublemakers were managers, and many of the issues which were the focus of ill-treatment (work allocation, communication, supervision) were recurrent. Male troublemakers were in the majority for all eight types of unreasonable treatment but were most markedly in the majority for pressure to work below one's level of competence. For all eight types of unreasonable treatment, the vast majority of troublemakers (80 per cent or higher) were white.

As we explained on p. 30, we also asked employees whether they had witnessed any unreasonable treatment of someone other than themselves on more than one occasion in the past two years. Figure 3 on p. 34 showed that more people had experienced unreasonable treatment than had witnessed it, but the witnessing rates were quite high for some types of unreasonable treatment, particularly unfair treatment and pressure not to claim something. This was not true of improper procedures and unmanageable workloads.

The proportion of the sample who said they had themselves been responsible for the unreasonable treatment of others was very low in comparison to the number who had witnessed or observed it. The only hint of a variation from this was for improper procedures and ignoring other people's opinions. Given what was said above about the expectation that people should behave rationally in the workplace, it should be no surprise that so few people admitted that they failed to live up to expectations. That people were more prepared to admit that they had failed to use proper procedures, and ignored others, may indicate where the most obvious conflicts in rational expectations were to be found. One might fail to use proper procedures if given a good reason to do so, and ignore the opinion of others if it was thought that they did not understand the objective. In any event, these low percentages remind us how foolish it would be write off the widespread nature of unreasonable treatment as in some way normal. The fact that so few people admit to having done it suggests that hardly anyone thinks of this as part of normal working life.6

As with all types of ill-treatment, those who experienced it were more likely both to witness it and to have done it themselves. As noted on p. 23, we think this confirms the advantages the 'troubled workplace' concept has over labels for individuals (for example as 'bullies' and 'victims' or 'targets') when we are trying to understand the causes of troubles at work. Of course, we have our own labels – the 'troubled minority' and 'troublemakers' – but these are meant to convey different experiences of a third factor, the troubled workplace, rather than setting us searching for the essential characteristics of troublemakers or troubled workers.

We discovered further evidence of troubled workplaces when we asked the troubled minority why they thought they had been subjected to unreasonable treatment. For all types of unreasonable treatment, most of the troubled minority chose one or more of these three potential explanations: 'your position in the organisation', 'it's just the way things are where you work' and 'the attitude or personality of the other person'. The only other explanations for unreasonable treatment worth mentioning were 'people's relationships at work (e.g. favouritism)' and 'your performance at work'. The former was slightly more common and particularly so where employees had experienced improper procedures and/or unfair treatment.7

This is an appropriate point to clarify the relationship between workplaces and the organisation which controlled them. Just over half of employees said their workplace was part of a larger organisation, and a quarter said it was not (the remainder said they did not know or refused to answer). We had anticipated that most workplaces would be controlled by larger organisations, so we knew that in some questions it would be appropriate to refer to an organisation, in others to the workplace, and in others to a vaguer formula such as 'where you work'.

Up to this point, we have been using descriptive statistics which might be encountered in marketing campaigns, and media reports of opinion polls, but we now move to multivariate analysis which allows us to control for lots of different variables at the same time. For example, if we find that unreasonable treatment is more common amongst disabled employees and public sector workers, descriptive statistics cannot tell us whether we need to look more closely at disabled workers, the public sector or both. Multivariate analysis can put everything together and tell us whether the disabled workers are only more at risk because they work in the public sector, whether the public sector is worse because it has more disabled workers, or whether it is a bit of both. Multivariate analysis can do this because it controls for every variable we put in our models.

The important lessons to learn from the multivariate analysis conducted for this chapter come in three varieties: those which refer to the individuals, jobs and workplaces associated with greater experience of unreasonable treatment. First, three characteristics of individuals were associated with greater experience of unreasonable treatment: they tended to be disabled or have a long-term illness, to be white and to be younger. Second, job characteristics associated with greater experience were earning a higher income and having managerial or supervisory responsibilities. Employees were also more likely to have experienced unreasonable treatment at work if the nature of their work had changed (or was changing), they had less control over their work, or the pace of their work had increased. Change in people's work is certainly a job characteristic but could also be a workplace characteristic. There were also employees who said that, irrespective of change, the pace of their work was too intense, which could be also be both a job and a workplace characteristic.

Third, amongst workplace characteristics associated with unreasonable treatment, employees were more likely to experience it if their workplace was outside London. There was also a strong correlation between experience of unreasonable treatment and employees telling us that their organisations always treated people as a means to an end (never an end in themselves). Another strong correlation was found between experiencing unreasonable treatment and feeling the organisation's goals were not compatible with our interviewee's moral principles. Strong as these two correlations were, perhaps the key predictor of the unreasonable treatment was that employees were not treated as individuals. As we suggested a little earlier, an employee's sense of unfairness and irrationality can be accompanied by belief that the organisation does not take account of the individual – of their talents, their values and, sometimes, their needs.

There is one thing to bear in mind before we fill in all the details of these findings. We have already explained that, although our funding was substantial, we could not afford to ask all the questions we wanted to find answers to in the whole sample. For example, the questions about who caused the trouble they reported were only asked of the troubled minority. That means that one of the things we were not able to control for in the multivariate analysis being discussed in the next section is who the troublemakers were.

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