Rewarding Employees is Good, But Being “Fair” is Better Still

Any parents out there? What’s the most common refrain you hear from your kids?

In my house, it’s “That’s not fair!” It can apply to anything – who got the extra chicken finger, who got to pick the movie, who got the comfy chair for movie night, who had to go to bed earlier.

It turns out, my kids’ brains are hardwired for this kind of behavior. Actually, we all are.

Why fairness really matters

Research reported in showed:

We have an inbuilt idea of fairness as well as a learned one. The researchers, led by Alexander Cappelen at the University of Bergen in Norway, had volunteers perform routine office work for various amounts of time. Then the subjects were put in an MRI machine and told their monetary reward would be split with another participant.

This unequal split sometimes reflected the amount each had worked, and sometimes didn’t. When someone found they were receiving more money, the striatum lit up — but it lit up even more when they had worked longer than the other person. In other words, the brain perceived the fairness of the division at a very low level.”

Fairness matters. And that’s why we talk about the need in employee recognition programs to calibrate awards to the level of effort, contribution, and result, among other factors.

One solution: calibrated awards

Think about it: Let’s say you worked on a team project, but through some investigative work, you were solely responsible for the discovery of a system malfunction that could have saved the company millions over the next several months. The entire team is praised for the discovery and every team member is equally recognized with a reward that has an economic value of $100.

You and everyone else on the team know it was your discovery that made the difference. You, of course, feel slighted. But here’s the interesting finding – your fellow colleagues are also upset on your behalf.

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It’s not “fair,” and everyone knows it.

Calibrated award levels let givers of recognition choose the appropriate award based on several factors (proactivity, scope, impact, ownership, and time investment) to ensure the recipient’s experience is memorable, enjoyable and – yes – fair.

How fair are your employee recognition and reward practices?

This was originally published on the Recognize This! blog.

A cheerleader for the power of recognition and appreciation, Traci Pesch is known for her deep partnerships with customers to help them attain their goals through social recognition. As a principal recognition strategist and consultant for Globoforce ( Traci is a founding member of the company’s strategy and consulting team and is always innovating new ways to create cultures of recognition. Contact her at


1 Comment on “Rewarding Employees is Good, But Being “Fair” is Better Still

  1. We had a situation like this not long ago. We had an employee perform a heroic measure (literally life-saving), and we recognized and rewarded him. Come to find out, he was not the only one involved, though he was the primary respondent and responsible party. The employee and those we had “slighted” were all upset, rightly so. But they still recognized that the one employee had gone above and beyond even their contribution. We gave the other two who were involved to a lesser degree a reward that was worth half of what the other employee got, and everyone was happy.

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