Employee Relations

When Fairness Fails: Employee Perceptions of Justice

Sometimes managers and business owners are required to make tough decisions, and these decisions don’t always result in favorable outcomes for every employee.  Both research and practical experience have shown us that employees’ perceptions of decisions can have dramatic outcomes for the organization. If an employee believes that he has been treated unjustly, this can lead to a number of negative outcomes for the organization including lower performance, higher turnover intentions, and higher deviant behaviors at work.   When an employee believes that she has been treated fairly, this can result in positive work outcomes such as higher job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and higher performance.

Fairness and Perceptions of Justice

One way to increase employees’ perceptions that they have been treated fairly is through procedural justice.  Procedural justice occurs when the processes and procedures taken to make a decision are perceived as fair.  If an employee believes that the steps taken to reach a decision are fair and just, then she is more likely to be satisfied with the outcome of the decision – even if it is not in her favor. One way of increasing perceptions of procedural justice is by giving employees “voice” in the decision-making process.  This includes letting employees express their opinions and weigh-in on the issue at hand.  Giving employees a voice in the decision-making process will let them know that you value their input. Another way of increasing perceptions of procedural justice is by making sure that the decision-making process is fair and unbiased.  Transparency of the process will help increase perceptions of procedural justice.

Personal and Social Identity Violation

Unfortunately, sometimes procedural justice just isn’t enough to overcome an unfair outcome. When decision outcomes violate employees’ personal and social identity – deeply rooted moral convictions and connections to groups with whom they identify (such as a work group, organization, or occupation) – how the decision was made does not seem to matter. When an individual’s personal or social identity is violated, he will search for flaws in the decision-making procedure to justify his anger and dissatisfaction with the outcome. Often, this process results in the employee believing that employee opinions or voice were not considered during the decision-making process. This can lead to negative reactions from the employee.

Practical Advice: Good News and Bad News

The good news is that in many situations, managers can take steps to minimize perceptions of unfairness by providing employees a “voice” in the decision-making process and by ensuring that fair procedures are followed throughout. The bad news is that when a decision outcome violates an employee’s social or personal identity, fair procedures might not be enough to assuage negative reactions of employees. Managers can take proactive steps to avoid negative employee reactions by anticipating which types of situations will not be aided by procedural justice. These might include issues that individuals may have a strong moral conviction about or any types of decisions that will impact a particular group, such as a work group or a profession. It’s also important to keep in mind that people are protective about the members of the groups to which they belong, so when a decision is made that negatively impacts an individual, other employees who share group membership with that person may become dissatisfied. However, in order for an employee to perceive that an injustice was perpetrated, he or she has to believe that there were no other suitable alternatives for the situation. Therefore, managers can emphasize a lack of suitable alternatives or inevitability of the current situation in order to minimize negative reactions.

Interpretation by:

Michelle Toelle

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Mayer, D.M., Greenbaum, R.L., Kuenzi, M., & Shteynberg, G. (2009). When do fair procedures not matter? A test of the identity violation effect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 142-161.