Employee Relations

How Do Employees Assess Fairness?

Employees’ perceptions of fairness greatly influence their workplace attitudes and behaviors. Employees are more likely to have positive attitudes and engage in behaviors that benefit the organization when they perceive the organization to be fair. When employees perceive unfairness, they are more likely to have negative attitudes and engage in workplace behaviors that can be detrimental to the organization.

On What Is Fairness Based?

In the past, most research regarding organizational fairness, also called justice, has focused on the fairness of workplace events. Specifically, it has focused on how people assess the fairness of the procedure, treatment, information, and outcomes in relation to a particular event (e.g., performance appraisal). Recently, the focus of justice research has shifted to a more comprehensive perspective, that is, people assess the fairness of entities involved in the workplace and workplace events, not just the isolated event itself. Employees tend to assess their supervisors’ and organizations’ overall fairness, as these are often the two entities perceived as responsible for the day-to-day aspects of the employees’ work lives. Employees’ comprehensive assessments have been broken down into key rules most often used to assess these entities’ (i.e., the supervisor and organization) propensity to be fair. Recognizing these rules helps manage employees’ fairness perceptions, which influence important organizational outcomes.

Assessing the Fairness of the Organization

The key rules that employees use to assess organizational fairness include:
  • Organizational support: Pleasantness of work environment and the amount of opportunity for professional development.
  • Organizational flexibility: Degree of flexibility offered by the organization in regard to employees’ work schedules and how the work is completed.
  • Organizational diversity: Degree to which the organization values all types of diversity among its staff.
  • Organizational turnover: The tenure of the employees at the organization.
Higher organizational support, flexibility, and diversity, coupled with a lower turnover rate, leads to greater perceptions of organizational fairness.

Assessing the Fairness of the Supervisor

The key rules that employees use to assess the fairness of their supervisors include:
  • Supervisor support: How accommodating and supportive of subordinate professional development the supervisor’s behavior is.
  • Supervisor flexibility: Flexibility granted by the supervisor in regard to work schedules and how the work is completed.
  • Supervisor traits: The personality, characteristics, and style of interactions used by the supervisor.
The higher the supervisory support, flexibility, and desirable traits, the higher likelihood that the employee will perceive the supervisor as fair.

Other Factors Employees Assess

An increase in perception of fairness in one entity is related to the fairness in the other. For example, employees who view their supervisor as fair may see the supervisor as a representative for the organization, and therefore, a major factor in determining the fairness of the organization. However, employees also base their fairness perceptions on information gathered from other coworkers. Hearing of a coworker’s past experience with the supervisor or organization can make an impression on the employee by revealing certain traits or aspects that the employee may not have known otherwise, or by reinforcing an impression that he or she already formed. Additionally, employees can often slightly differ day-to-day in their perceptions of the organization’s fairness depending on their mood.

Practical Implications

Based on the key rules that employees use for assessing fairness, supervisors and organizations can better manage their employees’ fairness perceptions by doing the following:
  • Advertise and emphasize organization’s positive work environment, developmental opportunities, diversity, and low turnover rate in internal newsletters and in recruitment brochures and presentations.
  • Provide support to employees (e.g., strive for a positive work environment, reasonably accommodating to employee needs, and providing opportunities for employee development).
  • Provide flexibility to employees (e.g., adjustment of work schedules and how they complete their work).
  • Foster a climate of fairness in which all entities are perceived as fair, as there is reciprocity in fairness perceptions of entities.
  • Provide opportunities for social communication in which employees can share their stories and experiences related to the supervisors’ and organizations’ fairness (e.g., potlucks, “brown-bag” events, conferences, and happy hours).
  • Provide employees an outlet for their emotions and opportunities to experience positive emotions (e.g., open-door policies, employee assistance programs, wellness programs, team retreats, recreation teams).
Following these suggestions can help organizations ensure that employees have greater perceptions of fairness, leading to the employee maintaining more positive attitudes and job behaviors.

Interpretation by:

Lexy Adkins

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Hollensbe, E. C., Khazanchi, S., & Masterson, S. S. (2008). How Do I Assess If My Supervisor and Organization Are Fair: Identifying the rules Underlying entity-based justice perceptions. Academy of Management Journal. 51 (6), 1099-1116.