“A married man gets one point in the woman’s scoring system for going to work, he gets one point for returning, and one point for being faithful. These are the three golden points. Without these, he gets no other points.”

These are the words of John Gray in his famous book ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” These points, he argues, give a man the ‘keys to a woman’s heart.’ With these keys, he can then go in and open the door with all the little things. But the little things will do nothing if the door is locked.

So many companies continually try to open a locked door and end up infuriated. They think they’re doing great things with engagement initiatives, with innovative employee benefits, with communication, with innovative business practices, but employees just aren’t responding. They’re uninterested. Disengaged. Unresponsive.

Why? Because they don’t realise they’re going up against a locked door. They think the employees are receptive.

Gaining the key to this door is simple. Equity is at the heart of the psychological contract. From a worker’s point of view, employers are currency exchanges. Workers exchange something that has no tradable value (productivity) for something that has universal tradable value (money). If they feel like they’re getting screwed on the exchange rate, they aren’t going to care if the company puts on a Christmas party.

Equity theory is so damn important it’s impossible to overstate it. Human beings are wired for fairness. There’s a well-known study involving two people – one is given £10 and told to distribute it in any way between both parties. The other person then decides whether to accept the amount they’ve been offered or reject it. In either case the person splitting the money still receives their share, so they aren’t incentivised to be equitable. The results of the study are clear: if the person who has to reject or accept the offer feels the offer is unfair, they will reject the money. In doing so they will receive nothing, rather than something. In purely economic terms, they will always be better off accepting the offer, and always be worse off if they reject it. Yet this isn’t how they act.

A company’s first goal in employee relations is to make sure the employee feels the relationship is equitable. They put something in, they get something out. They have to feel like this is a fair swap. If they don’t, you are wasting your time in other areas. But the key thing is perception. Even if you think the swap is fair, you must find out what your employees are thinking. Things get lost in translation. People miscommunicate. Situations look different to different people. For Pete’s sake, don’t be afraid to ask people how they’re feeling.

If employees feel the relationship is unfair, they will turn into shell workers – those who wander in the working world like wraiths, acting like automatons out of necessity, smiling when they need to, but dying inside.

After a while like this, you’ve lost them for good. So print EQUITY on the back of your eyelids so you see it every time you blink.