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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management, American Public University
This is the first of a three-part series on organizational justice.
Why aren’t things always fair in the workplace? This is a question that arises usually when an employee:
- Feels mistreated
- Witnesses something unfair
- Decides to leave the organization as a result of a perceived injustice
My typical response to that question is one you may not agree with. But it has been useful for me when I attempt to coach individuals on empowerment and taking control of their destiny. As President Kennedy is known to have said, “Life is unfair.”
The Workplace Is Driven by Culture, Not Fairness
Based on what I have seen over the years, the average workplace is not “structured” to be fair. Institutions tend to be driven by cultures and cultures are inspired by people, who have subjective thoughts and sometimes hidden agendas. However, most individuals attempt to do the right thing, but they have to be diligent and consistent.
When an organization doesn’t have a watchdog to level the playing field, employee morale and motivation suffer. When morale and motivation are missing, productivity decreases and employees opt to perform only the basics of what is necessary to get the job done.
Organizational Justice and Merit Increases
There are three types of organizational justice that focus on how employees perceive fairness in the workplace:
1) Distributive – This type relates to the fairness of a situation’s outcome. For example, an employee may have an above-average performance rating for the year, but only receives a small salary increase of one to three percent and is not eligible for a bonus.
For some employees, the question then becomes “Why should I work hard?” Some managers take the attitude that just having a job should be sufficient.
But many employees have realized that they may have to change jobs to get a reasonable pay increase. However, that type of response may not be the best answer given the current job market.
2) Procedural – This form of organizational justice deals with how an employee perceives the fairness of a process that dictates a situation’s outcome. One example of a process would be an organization’s compensation and classification system used with the above-average employee.
Many organizations allocate a pool of money to a manager to distribute to staff members. For instance, you may work in a department where five percent is the average annual increase. However, you might have a staff of seven employees and three of them are rated as outstanding. The remaining four employees are rated as doing satisfactory work without any significant accomplishments.
To reward the exceptional three performers, a manager might take some of the pool money away from the average employees to pay the outstanding performers. From a managerial perspective, this action could be deemed as the only solution.
However, the four employees doing merely satisfactory work might view their contributions as not as valuable as their co-workers’ performance because they did not receive even the average five percent increase. (Yes, employees do discuss their salaries.)
3) Interactional – This form concerns how information is communicated to employees. Using the example above, if you were the manager, how would you tell those four employees about their loss of an increase? How will you get them to recognize that what you decided was fair?
Even if you believe you are not obligated to share that information, how will you deal with such a sensitive issue? You still have to ensure that staff productivity does not suffer as a result of your salary decisions.
Managers are often in the middle between senior leaders and lower-level employees. Some of them have a tough job communicating their actions to their employees because decision-making is not always easy.
However, it is critical that leaders take a systematic approach to arriving at conclusions. These approaches tend to be objective and outline how a decision was reached.
Although the outcome may not be what the employees want, they will have an appreciation of the decision if it is presented in a manner that acknowledges their dignity and value. The decision should also create a sense of respect for you as a manager.
Take some time to think about how you would make your employees feel good about their work and future in your department. It could be a useful way of raising morale and productivity.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and influential leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.