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Ask an Ethicist: Fairness in the workplace

Being treated fairly in the workplace means being treated equally to others in the work group and in a non-arbitrary and respectful manner. So what happens when one employee feels that the supervisor is giving projects to colleagues instead of the employee and is treating the concerned employee negatively? What options does this employee have and what ethical concerns should be considered?

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: In a business environment, what should you do if your boss begins to treat you differently when compared to other colleagues (for example he/she doesn't give you any projects to do or he/she is stern towards you all the time)? Who is the right person to turn to in this situation and are there any ethical concerns I should be thinking about when I approach this?

An ethicist responds: As a professor of management and business ethics I see this as a management issue as much as I see it as an ethical issue.  There are many possible causes that can range from previous employee misconduct (something the employee did to which the manager is reacting) to abusive supervision (a hostile, aggressive supervisor who has it out for this particular employee) and lots of possibilities in between. The employee likely sees this as an ethical issue because of the fairness concerns involved.  Being treated fairly means being treated equally to others in the work group and in a non-arbitrary and respectful manner.  Questions come to mind such as “why is my boss singling me out for mistreatment and undermining my performance by not giving me work?” 

The possible employee actions depend a great deal on the historical relationship between these two individuals and the culture of the work environment.  If they have had a reasonably good relationship in the past, and the environment feels safe, the employee should consider talking with the boss directly to explain the concern and to see whether there is some explanation for the new behavior and whether the relationship can be improved.  Many employees would not feel comfortable doing this, however.  It would likely feel quite risky and speaking up to a supervisor in this way takes courage that many of us just don’t have.  If that’s the case, the employee should not give up there.

Depending on the culture of the organization, and the psychological safety the employee feels about reporting problems, the employee should be able to turn to the organization’s Human Resource professionals for help.  They should listen to the concerns and investigate the matter, protecting the employee in the process.  Depending upon their findings, perhaps they can help to rehabilitate the supervisor/employee relationship.  If not, they may counsel the employee and/or move the employee to a different department.  They may also need to address the abusive supervision (if that’s what they find).  Abusive supervision can go undetected for long periods especially if if they're good at managing impressions of themselves with their own superiors. Organizations need to be on the lookout for abusive supervisors and deal with them because they can seriously damage morale and performance.  

Because employees are likely to think of this as an ethics (fairness) issue, the employee can also call the organization’s ethics and compliance hotline or helpline.  Most large organizations have these and they take calls about a wide variety of ethics and compliance concerns.  Sometimes, the phone line is answered in-house and sometimes it is answered by an outside contractor.  In any case, someone in the ethics and compliance office will get the report and then decide whether to investigate, turn it over to another department (likely Human Resources in this case) or investigate the case jointly.  Generally, individuals can call back within a given time frame to get an update on the investigation and any action.   As with a call to Human Resources, the employee should be protected during the investigation process and its aftermath.  In a case such as this one, unfortunately the identity of the person making the claim probably can’t be kept anonymous (as it can be with many calls to these hotlines). So, if the employee stays in the unit, the organization should follow up to insure that no retaliation from the supervisor follows.   It is possible that the investigation will determine that the complaint was not valid.  In that case, some sort of intervention with the employee will be required to determine what is causing the bad feelings and whether anything can be done to improve the situation.  Perhaps a referral to the organization’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) would occur.

In the end, there are few things that are more important than a work environment that provides a good fit for the employee in terms of boss, coworkers, and organizational culture.  So, if the environment doesn’t feel safe enough to report one’s concerns, or the employee is dissatisfied with the action taken in response to the complaint, it’s time to polish up that resume and look for a better-fitting situation. 

Linda K. Treviño, Ph.D. is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics in the Department of Management and Organization in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State.  Professor Treviño holds a Ph.D. in management which has contributed to her unique focus on ethics as a management issue. She has published over 70 peer-reviewed articles and three books including a textbook on managing business ethics that is in its sixth edition.   In 2007, she was elected a member of the Academy of Management Fellows, a group that recognizes and honors members of the Academy of Management who have made significant contributions to the science and practice of management.  In 2015, Ethisphere named her one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.