The primal reaction to unfair treatment lives on.
I want to talk about the most important factor related to compensation in the workplace: fairness. And to illustrate the point of how awful unfair compensation feels, I am going to talk about the Florida State football team.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Florida State won the ACC championship, capping off a victorious season with an incredible 13-0 record. And if you didn’t know that, you probably aren’t aware that the Seminoles are also the first undefeated Power 5 team to be left out of the College Football Playoffs (CFP).
As the undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference, they believed they deserved a spot in the College Football Playoffs (CFP) and a shot at the national title. After all, that’s what the team did this year: win. No undefeated Power 5 team has ever been denied that. Until now.
On Sunday, December 3, the CFP committee announced that Florida State would not be one of the four teams participating in the College Football Playoffs.
I am not going to focus on the merit of the CFP selection and if they made the right choice. You may agree or disagree with that decision, and we could spend all day discussing the factors that went into their choices. I believe the four selected teams are all worthy and that an argument can be made for each team, plus a number of the excluded teams.
But what is difficult to argue is that the athletes on the Seminoles football team feel they have been treated fairly.
Because they don’t. They feel wronged. Everyone, from the head coach to the players to the fans, feels treated unfairly.
There is a big difference between the feeling that accompanies losing something versus how you feel when you’ve been denied something you feel you earned. When you lose, you understand that there may be consequences for the loss. You did your best, and you fell short.
But when you win and achieve every goal you set (and the system is set to reward), you expect you will receive what is due. When the reward does not match the promise, you risk destroying the belief system of those who acted in good faith.
The same is true in the workplace. One thing I learned as an HR executive is that misaligned compensation plans look and feel unfair. And things that feel unfair activate a part of our brains, causing a different emotion that goes way beyond disappointment: rage. When employees feel wronged, they rage, which impacts culture, increases turnover, and destroys faith in leaders, institutions, and people in power.
Feelings of anger when an injustice is a natural reaction for humans called “inequity aversion.” Dr. Dana G. Smith says, “There’s an evolutionary reason that being treated unfairly is so rage-inducing — in fact, it’s one of the most primal sources of anger.”
The reason I often use sports as an analogy for business strategies is because it applies in so many instances. In this case, the lesson is that, above all else, compensation needs to be fair – and feel fair. A good comp plan’s goal is to align with the company’s values and incentivize the right behaviors from your employees.
When you have done the work to create a strong and fair compensation plan, you should be able to ask yourself, “Can I defend every component of this?” “Am I delivering everything that is reasonably expected?” “Will every person on my team understand where they stand in the plan and why?” If you can answer yes to these questions, you will find that your staff will avoid feeling mistreated, even if compensation is below desired levels. If it makes sense, aligns with practices within the organization, and is communicated transparently, it will be supported.
About the Author:
Rich Thompson, CEO of XPG Recruit, is an expert on staffing, human resources, training and leadership development. He is also a former All-Big Ten football player for the University of Wisconsin. XPG Recruit provides recruiting for staffing companies. The XPG Recruit Athlete division places former athletes into business careers and works closely with universities through its sister company, Podium X.
For more about what we believe are the foundational skills of leadership, here is a related excerpt from my book, “RELENTLESS: Leading Through Performance, Relationships, and the Lessons of Sports.”