The Human Need for Equality is Accomplished in the Workplace

This piece was published in PA Times Online February 12, 2020 and can be seen here.

Motivation, for most, lies in monetary gain – but it is not just pay raises that keep employees motivated.[1] People naturally have a need for equality in their work and social circles because while “no two humans are biologically the same…humans do have evolutionary equality.”[2] The way we are programmed to judge equality lies in theories such as Vroom’s expectancy theory which illustrate the balance between the work or effort one puts into a job and the reward one expects to get from it.[3] [4] By not only understanding the how but also the why people are motivated, managers can better motivate their employees through compensation while promoting equality in the workplace.

            Although the United States government, on the whole, holds the ethic that “all men are created equal”, legislation meant to correct inequality in pay has failed to truly create an equal compensation system for all people.[5] [6] Therefore, the task of equality falls to management – and, seeing that compensation and equality are major factors in one’s motivation to work and engage, the need for managers to ensure equal pay for equal work is important to the organization’s long-term vision and goals.[7]

The Human Need for Equality

            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.[8] This satisfaction judgement is not an arbitrary basis for fairness, but rather a deeply ingrained trait all humans (and primates) have.[9] Biology explains that, because of 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 “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.”[10] This principle has helped early human ancestors to get along and work together so that the tribe as a whole can succeed and spread.[11] Since this universal human trait is hardwired into the brain, it is clear that it has ties to the workplace today – especially in regard to compensation and how people compare themselves to one another.

            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. In addition to Vroom’s expectancy theory, equity theory, acknowledges more variables and factors that may affect an employee’s judgment of how fair they are being rewarded in the workplace.[12] Equity theory, developed by workplace psychologist John Stacey Adams in 1963, is founded on the basis that employees are “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.[13] [14] The inputs an individual puts into a job are exactly what one would expect: effort, loyalty, ability and competence, enthusiasm, among others where the outputs expected by an individual are recognition, a sense of achievement, praise, and perhaps above all, financial rewards.[15]

In the field of public administration specifically, works from Chester Barnard saw 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, “participation will continue only as long as he (or she) perceives that he is receiving more from the organization that he is required to contribute.”[16] 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.

What Managers can do to Better Ensure Equality in Compensation

            When one thinks of ways to motivate employees, the first ideas that come to mind are raises – be it 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.[20] As discussed before, 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.[21] The key to equality and motivation in the workplace is predictability and transparency in compensation.

            Since legislation-only strategies do not necessarily lead to change, it is up to management in the workplace to ensure their employees are being compensated fairly. The biggest strides towards equality comes from the public sector – not surprising if one was to ask a PBA 510 class.[22] One way the public sector is leading the way towards equality is to utilize a structured pay scale in order to protect against discrimination because “once you give supervisors in the federal government the ability to vary pay by individual, rather than job, they are going to reward the people they like the best” and perform most effectively.[23] A structured pay process is the first key to equality and motivation in compensation as it creates predictability with the employee and helps them better compare themselves to similar jobs internally and externally.[24] The communication and predictability also plays into the organization-individual contracts to better align each other’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.[25] One study found that “in the context of performance-based pay systems, pay secrecy may elicit cognitive shortcuts among members of newly formed, virtual work groups and — at least in the short-run — hinder accurate perceptions of others’ expertise.”[26] Pay transparency, along with a structured and predictable pay scale will not only ensure employees are being paid closer to what they are worth, it is also “the single best protection against gender bias, racial bias or orientation bias.”[27]

            Of course, transparency alone isn’t the solution to all problem, management must be expressly committed to ensuring that their employees are paid appropriately and if pay transparency or a pay scale reveals inequality in pay, it will need to be address as soon as possible to avoid any unintended discrimination or demotivation among employees.[28] But the organization-individual relationship, as defined by the likes of John Adams and Chester Bernard, is defined by how the employee is compensated and motivated. Addressing the issue of pay inequality and understanding the hardwired need for equality is an absolute necessity for organizations in their long-term planning.


[1] Chris Blank, “How Well Do Raises Work to Motivate?” Houston Chronicle, accessed October 22, 2018. http://work.chron.com/well-raises-work-motivate-4818.html.

[2] Agustin Fuentes. “Is Inequality Natural? Does our evolutionary history condemn us to social inequality?” Psychology Today, accessed October 22, 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/busting-myths-about-human-nature/201210/is-inequality-natural.

[3] Evan Berman, Human Resource Management in Public Service: Paradoxes, Processes, and Problems, 5th ed. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2016), 218.

[4] David Kimball, Cases in Human Resource Management (Los Angeles: Sage, 2017), 60.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence” Historic American Documents (1776), accessed October 22, 2018 from http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/133/historic-american-documents/4957/the-declaration-of-independence/

[6] Morgan Brinlee, “Why Didn’t the Equal Pay Act Close the Gender Pay Gap? 50 years later, America Still has a Major Problem” Bustle, accessed October 22, 2018 from https://www.bustle.com/articles/154078-why-didnt-the-equal-pay-act-close-the-gender-pay-gap-50-years-later-america-still.

[7] Berman, Human Resource Management, 242.

[8] Berman, Human Resource Management, 243.

[9] Fuentes (2012), “Is Inequality Natural?”

[10] Michael Shermer. The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics. (New York: Times Books, 2008), 10 -11.

[11] Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 187.

[12] Kimball, Cases in Human Resource Management, 60.

[13] Mind Tools, “Adam’s Equity Theory: Balancing Employee inputs and Outputs” Mindtools.com, accessed October 22, 2018 from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_96.htm.

[14] Ibid., Kimball, 60.

[15] Mindtools.com “Adam’s Equity Theory”.

[16] Brian R. Fry & Jos C.N. Raadschelders, Mastering Public Administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2014), 237.

[17] Berman, Human Resource Management, 262.

[18] Brinlee (2016), “Why Didn’t the Equal Pay Act Close the Gender Pay Gap?”.

[19] Tosha Wilson-Davis, “Equal Pay for Equal Work: Enough Said” PA Times accessed October 23,2018 from https://patimes.org/40608-2/.

[20] Chris Blank (2018), “How Well Do Raises Work to Motivate?”

[21]  Berman, Human Resource Management, 271 & 274.

[22] Alexia Campbell, “One Way to Ensure Equal Pay for Men and Women” The Atlantic accessed October 22, 2018 from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/11/how-the-government-mostly-closed-its-gender-pay-gap/506084/.

[23] Alexia Campbell (2016), “One Way to Ensure Equal Pay for Men and Women”.

[24] Berman, Human Resource Management, 255.

[25] Kimball, Cases in Human Resource Management, 60.

[26] Kristin Wong, “Employees are More Motivated when Companies are Transparent about Salary” The Cut accessed October 23, 2018 from https://www.thecut.com/article/salary-transparency-males-employees-more-motivated.html.

[27] Belle Cooper, “Pros and Cons of Salary Transparency” (Blog Post) accessed October 23, 2018 from https://blog.cultureamp.com/pros-and-cons-of-salary-transparency.

[28] Kristin Wong, “Employees are More Motivated when Companies are Transparent about Salary”.

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