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Fairness on the Job-It's Not Just Monkey Business! 05-10-2004
- By Ann F. Kiernan

Ever see a picket line? If so, you've read the signs carried by striking employees: "UNFAIR!" A 2003 scientific study shows that, just like humans, monkeys will protest and refuse to work if they see another monkey get a bigger reward for doing the same job. In other words, primates seem to be hard-wired for fairness.

The discovery that justice and fairness are important to other species has attracted a lot of attention in the press. The study, carried out at Emory University and published in Nature magazine, involved teaching capuchin monkeys to trade plastic tokens for food. The monkeys, who worked in pairs, were usually happy to trade a token for a piece of cucumber.

But when the monkeys saw others getting grapes for their tokens, they took offense. About half of the short-changed capuchins rebelled, refusing to hand over their tokens or rejecting the cucumber. And if the monkeys saw others getting grapes for nothing, 80% objected in some way. Some even threw their tokens or the cucumber clean out of the cage.

As fascinating as this study is, what does it mean to you? One of the Emory researchers observed that "You need a sense of fairness to live in large, complex groups... The findings may help explain why people often forgo a reward if they don't perceive it as fair." In other words, just like the monkeys throwing away the cucumber they have already worked for, people become less cooperative if treated unfairly and will punish the uncooperative, even if their own reward declines as a result. The next time you have to make a management decision, remember those monkeys and make sure you are giving equal pay for equal work and otherwise treating like cases alike.

Don't monkey around with management! "Be consistent" is one of the Four Key Concepts of Employment Law covered in our one-day program, Managing Within the Law.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.
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