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Workplace Fairness

What triggers perceptions of workplace fairness and unfairness? And how do fairness perceptions impact your organization? Here's what the research says...

Fairness perceptions have several layers.

Fairness isn’t just one thing. When people decide, consciously or subconsciously, whether a workplace is fair, we’re responding to several things.

Perceived workplace fairness can increase or decrease in response to: how decisions happen, how leaders distribute resources, how well team members explain decisions and processes, and the tone of interactions involving decisions and appeals.

Researchers distinguish several layers of organizational justice14,19:

Type of JusticeWhat is it?The questions people answer for themselves:
Procedural JusticePerceptions that the way decisions and outcomes happen is fair and transparent.Are people using a process that is… - Consistent across time and people? - Unbiased and unaffected by personal interests? - Accurate and based on valid information? - Correctable and modifiable? - Representative of core values? - Ethical?
Distributive JusticePerceptions that the actual distribution of rewards and resources is fair.Do outcomes match inputs? • Equity: outcomes match inputs • Inequity (over): outcomes are greater than inputs (i.e. overpaid) Inequity (under): outcomes are fewer than inputs (i.e. underpaid)
Interactional JusticePerceptions that interactions about procedures and outcome distribution are fair. Two sublayers (below).(See Interpersonal & Informational Justice below)
- Interpersonal JusticePerceptions that conversations preserve dignity and respect for all people affected by the procedures and outcomes.Are conversations about procedures and outcomes respectful? Are questions and appeals handled with dignity?
- Informational JusticePerceptions that clear and thorough explanations are readily available for all people affected by the procedures and outcomes.Is clear and adequate information about decision processes and outcomes easy to obtain?

Research summary animation from the China Europe International Business School:

Effort-to-reward ratios are an important workplace fairness comparison.

Adams’ Equity Theory explains that people seek to equalize our effort-to-reward ratios with those of other people we see as comparable to ourselves. When we notice different input/output ratios in our workplaces, we sense a lack of distributive justice. People are not alone in making these comparisons:

Positive perceptions of distributive justice link to greater job satisfaction, deeper organizational commitment and trust, and more frequent helping behaviors. Positive beliefs about distributive justice are also linked with lower turnover, fewer off-task workplace behaviors, and reduced absenteeism/tardiness1,2,6,7,14.

Context influences how people define fairness—the workplace setting carries special considerations.

In formal organizational settings, people tend to prefer equitable distributions of rewards (i.e., rewards proportionate to each person’s contribution). Whereas in close personal relationships, people tend to prefer equal or need-based distributions (i.e., rewards distributed equally, or rewards proportionate to each person’s needs)12,15,18,.

Interesting flip: Resource distribution can influence perceptions of relationship closeness.

Who's the point of comparison? The comparison target anchors workplace fairness judgments.

Perceptions of justice or injustice are social comparisons. Changing the base of comparison changes our fairness perceptions. We’re more likely to feel dissatisfied with an outcome when a comparable person receives more than we do. Interestingly, we rarely focus on making comparisons with those who receive less than we do.

Exploring a range of comparison targets can broaden thinking about fairness14.

Decision processes influence workplace fairness perceptions—even more than the decision outcomes.

Even when we dislike an outcome, believing that a decision was made through fair process makes us significantly more likely to accept it. Perceptions of procedural justice are based on things like: bias, accuracy, process consistency, the ability to express one’s opinion and/or appeal the decision, and how well the process represents the ethics and values of the people involved.

Build fair decision processes in your organization. The fair process effect is particularly important for people whose outcomes are negative (i.e., people who benefit from a decision are less inclined to consider how fair the decision-making process was)3,6,11,19,24.

Decision explanations have a big impact on workplace fairness perceptions.

This is the type of justice that managers can directly control. Decision explanations fall under what researchers call interactional justice. Interactional justice has an interpersonal side—treating people with respect, and demonstrating care for their well-being, as well as an informational side—clearly explaining the procedure and thought behind a decision outcome.

Taking the care and time to provide respectful explanations promotes trust in the fairness of workplace decisions6,13.

There are gender differences in the evaluation of fairness and reactions to fairness.

An fMRI study found that men and women have different neurophysiological responses to procedural and distributive justice evaluations. The brain areas involved in appraising self-relevant information showed greater activation for women than for men.

The takeaway? In general, women react more strongly to (un)fairness, which makes interactional justice especially important9.

People bring biased thinking to workplace fairness perceptions.

We tend to think of ourselves as fair. We also tend to think that personally beneficial outcomes are the most fair. When we receive greater rewards than a comparable person, we are prone to find a reason why we’re more qualified rather than conclude our outcome is unfair.

In other words, it's natural for people to be biased in fairness assessments. Managers and leaders can try to mitigate bias by helping team members re-calibrate perceptions 1,2,20.

In ambiguous situations, people fill in the blanks to judge fairness.

Our judgments that something is fair or unfair can be based on intuition or emotion. Especially when there is high ambiguity. In unclear situations with scarce information, people are more likely to rely on subjective, heuristically-based fairness judgments.

The fix? Offer information about how and why decisions have been made. Information can reduce reflexes to fill in gaps based on affective responses and individual sense-making16,25,26.

A sense of workplace unfairness can cripple work attitudes and performance.

Promoting workplace fairness is important. When people feel that decisions, processes, and interactions in their organization are unjust, negative attitudes develop about the organization and its leaders. These negative attitudes in turn demotivate and reduce performance outcomes. People may even retaliate against perceived unfairness by leaving—or even deliberately sabotaging—the organization.

In contrast, fair workplaces can compel reciprocity, creating an environment where people are willing to go above and beyond for their coworkers and organization 5,7,8,10,21,22.

Team responses to unfairness are especially strong when individuals are singled out for unfair treatment.

When a supervisor creates a climate of injustice within a team, the team members experience a level of shared discomfort, but also tend to band together and be more cohesive. However, if a supervisor treats one teammate more unfairly than others, teams retaliate by performing fewer helping behaviors for the supervisor4,23.

Some workplace fairness behaviors are more energizing than others.

Managers reported feeling depleted when engaging in procedural justice behaviors daily. However, engaging in interactional fairness behaviors was replenishing – especially for extraverted managers17.


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