How to Create a Culture of Fairness in Government

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows that some agencies have a lot of work to do.

The quality of agency leadership and the role that merit plays in workplace decisions continues to plague the Defense and Homeland Security departments, at least from the employees’ perspective, according to this year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

For example, at Homeland Security many responses to governmentwide questions fell below the 35 percent positive level, which is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. Employees responded most negatively to questions regarding whether pay raises were in line with performance, whether steps were taken to deal with poorly performing employees, and whether promotions were based on merit.

While these two large organizations scored poorly in these areas, in my experience, these are common problems across the government—and the private sector, for that matter—and they vary primarily by degree.

So what can be done? Organizations can take a number of actions to build a culture of fairness and trust:

1. Management must be committed to the concept. Without that commitment, you will not achieve fairness or trust no matter how good your systems are, because some of your supervisors are likely to undermine the systems. How will they do this? By protecting their favorites and going after people they do not like. It is as simple as that and once people see this happening, it undermines morale and destroys management’s credibility.

What is needed is a common philosophy shared by all members of management that there will be reliable consequences for every level of performance and behavior, regardless of whether management likes the employee or not. That means we will reward and promote employees if they do a good job, even if they are not the supervisor’s buddies. It also means action will be promptly taken to deal with poor performance, even if the employee is one of the supervisor’s favorites.

2. Build management systems that are fair and easy to understand. This entails developing proper performance standards based on objective data to the maximum extent possible (which admittedly is not easy but it can be done), reasonable rewards goals, an effective promotion program based on merit, and a clear and consistent approach to dealing with poor behavior and performance.

A key component here is that everyone needs to receive training and tools to help them succeed. Also, employees should be taught what performance measures mean and where the information comes from so they clearly understand how to influence performance and hopefully improve it.

3. Provide employees with frequent feedback. People need to know how they are doing relative to the standards and goals. They should always be able to see an action coming so there are no surprises and no secrets. When actions are taken (or not taken) seemingly out of left field, employees will often conclude that the reason behind those actions was nefarious. You can be sure that word will spread quickly that management is being unfair.

4. Exercise transparency by making everything as visual as possible. That is, be open and honest with employees so they can understand the rationale behind management’s actions.

Some ways this can be accomplished include:

  • Post individual’s performance (either by name or by symbol) so they can see how they are doing relative to their peers.
  • Provide written feedback on a monthly basis relative to employees’ goals and how they are trending.
  • Post group performance toward goals.

5. Honestly answer employees’ questions. For example, if someone wants to know why she wasn’t promoted, don’t merely state that someone was a better candidate. Be brutally honest. Better to say, “You have not volunteered for any special projects and at times your attitude has been less than optimal. For example, on March 14th you were asked to help Mark with a small project. You responded that ‘this wasn’t in your job description.’”

If an employee wants to know how they are doing, do not say, “fine” if there is a problem. Better to say something like, “While you are barely meeting your performance standards, your output and quality is in the bottom 10 percent of the employees in your unit, and you are in danger of falling below the minimum standard for quality. Here is what you need to do to improve…”

Such honesty in many cases will help the person become a better employee. You will also build trust, which will go a long way towards improving your culture and performance.

Stewart Liff is a performance management, HRM and team development expert, and the president and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates, Inc. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees, A Team of Leaders and Seeing is Believing. He can be reached at