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The Human Need for Equality is Accomplished in the Workplace

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Cody Scott
February 12, 2020

Motivation, for most, lies in monetary gain—but it is not just pay raises that keep employees motivated. People naturally have a need for equality in their work and social circles because while, “No two humans are biologically the same,” we do share certain biological traits. The need for equality is a big one, asserts anthropologist Agustin Fuentes. By not only understanding the how but also why people are motivated, managers can better motivate their employees through compensation while promoting equality in the workplace.

A person’s satisfaction with their job generally depends on their perception of fairness in their work with a link between their performance and their pay. This satisfaction judgement is not an arbitrary basis for fairness, but rather a deeply ingrained trait that scientists have agreed all humans (and primates) have. Science also tells us that because, since the majority of time humans have been around was spent in hunting and gathering social bands, people have developed a moral emotion of, “Reciprocal altruism,” that demands equality in work among individuals. It is essentially, as Micheal Shermer states in The Mind of the Market, “The moral sense of fairness hardwired into our brains and is an emotion shared by all people and primates,” that states, “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” This principle has helped early human ancestors to get along and work together so that the tribe as a whole could succeed and spread.  Since this universal human trait is hardwired into the brain, it has ties to the workplace today.

There are more recent and directly relevant studies regarding the human relationship to equality that address current variables to an employee’s motivation and engagement in their work. Equity theory, developed by workplace psychologist John Stacey Adams in 1963, is founded on the basis that employees are, “De-motivated, both in relation to their job and their employer, if they feel as though their inputs are greater than the outputs,” which could result in a reduced effort and reduced happiness from the employee if the balance sways towards more effort than reward. The inputs an individual puts into a job are exactly what one would expect: effort, loyalty, ability and competence and enthusiasm, among others whereas the outputs expected by an individual are recognition, a sense of achievement, praise and perhaps above all, financial rewards.

In the field of public administration specifically, Chester Barnard notes in Functions of the Executive that the relationship between the individual and the organization operates like a contract between the two parties where, on the individual’s side of the agreement, voluntary participation will continue as long as the person is receiving more from the organization than he or she is contributing. This perspective is built on the idea that individuals want fair compensation and that the organization must respond to individual’s needs—or else employee may leave and find opportunity elsewhere.

When one thinks of ways to motivate employees, the first ideas that come to mind are raises. Be they merit or longevity compensation, it is clear that they do not only fail to motivate in the long-run, but they also do very little for equality in the workplace. Because humans have a hardwired need for equality, the standard and outdated methods of motivation, such as bonus programs and commission-based pay, do not cut it. The key to equality and motivation in the workplace is predictability and transparency in compensation.

It is up to management to ensure their employees are being compensated fairly. One way to work towards equality is to utilize a structured pay scale in order to protect against discrimination. A structured pay process is the first key to equality and motivation in compensation, as it creates predictability with the employees and helps them better compare themselves to similar jobs internally and externally. The communication and predictability also plays into employee contracts to better align with both the employee’s and the organization’s goals.

The second key to equality and motivation is salary transparency. It is an unspoken rule in the workplace: do not talk about salary. But often times, this secrecy can promote unfair pay compensation and even protect inequality in the workplace. Pay transparency, along with a structured and predictable pay scale will not only ensure employees are being paid closer to what they are worth, but will safeguard against inequality or perceived inequality.

Of course, transparency alone isn’t the solution to all problems. Management must be expressly committed to ensuring that their employees are paid appropriately. If pay transparency or a pay scale reveals inequality in pay, this will need to be addressed as soon as possible to avoid any unintended discrimination or demotivation among employees. Addressing the issue of pay inequality and understanding the hardwired need for equality is an absolute necessity for organizations in their long-term planning.

Author: Cody Scott is currently an MPA student at Stephen F Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. His main focus is in how philosophy, human behavior, and history applies and gives better insight into the field of governance and public administration. He can be contacted anytime at [email protected]

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