May 17, 2021

Redefining fairness — A conversation with Heidi Pancake

This is the first post in a four-part series titled “Redefining work.”

HR pros and people leaders have grappled with questions of fairness and equity over the last year. People leaders have faced increasing pressure to answer questions about the highly-anticipated return to the workplace, particularly around the question of who will work from home and who will not. At the same time, leaders are called to reassess diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and face the nuances of fairness and equity for marginalized identities. The past 14 months have shown that it is no longer enough to simply discuss fairness initiatives; people leaders everywhere are tasked with redefining fairness in the workplace. 

We met with Heidi Pancake, VP of HR at Leaf Group, to discuss what fairness means to her, how we can tailor custom solutions to individual needs, and what the future holds for equity and inclusion. 

Few companies have given equity initiatives the resources and agency they’d need to make a real difference in organizations. Workers have made it known that lip service is no longer enough. The ongoing return to the workplace is an opportunity to take stock of what wasn’t working pre-pandemic and what we can learn from having survived an incredibly challenging time in the world and within our companies. By redefining the terms of fairness and equity at work, people leaders can create meaningful change.

The theme of accountability recurred throughout our conversation: how do people leaders and HR pros hold accountable not only their employees and teams but also themselves? Pancake offers the mantra, “Don’t misinform folks about what they can expect.” She advocates for a transparent approach that meets employees with vulnerability and honesty. When we asked her about her refreshing HR style, she told us, “Adjust your style of delivery, but the information doesn’t have to change.” In other words, you can remain impactful and direct without disrespecting your colleagues. 

Pancake offers these tips for people leaders as we enter our “next normal”:

  • Treat yourself with compassion, and accept compassion from your coworkers.
  • Rather than buy into the idea that anything is inherently fair or unfair, interrogate your assumptions.
  • Increase the capacity for self-determination on your team: with more voices shaping our next normal, we can better create one that works for everyone.

In one installment of an ongoing series, Harvard Business Review writer Lynda Gratton explores how to maintain fairness and inclusion in the hybrid model. The article emphasizes the importance of approaching employees as humans with their own unique needsone size does not fit all

When people are empowered to make bold decisions to support their own needs, the rest falls more easily into place.

We asked Pancake about HR leaders’ greatest anxieties about the return to the workplace — questions like:

  • Who will work from home, and who won’t?
  • How can we keep a unified company culture despite a hybrid work model?
  • How much say/self-determination should employees have as work-from-home policies are developed and executed?

Responding to these common concerns, Pancake affirmed that it’s the role of HR and people leaders to create psychological safety that allows for their employees to speak up and self-advocate. When people are empowered to make bold decisions to support their own needs, the rest falls more easily into place.

Takeaways as we move forward

  • Fairness is a construct. It’s subjective, and the people whom your policies affect will ultimately evaluate their fairness.
  • Employees at all levels of their organizations will lead the way in forming policies for the next normal.
  • Vulnerable leaders build compassionate and empathetic workplaces.

Leaders, be gentle with yourselves as we pave the way forward together. There will be missteps along the way, but by opening a conversation about what employees need to feel seen, heard, and respected, you’ll lay the groundwork for a more just and equitable future of work.

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