In my previous blog post, "Gaining a Competitive Advantage Through People,” I mentioned one practice to achieve this advantage is to treat employees fairly. Easy, right? You may be thinking, “Don’t I already do this?” While many organizations do, fairness can be complex, and research indicates that even when employees don't always get what they think is due them, they can still have a positive impression about the firm's fairness. To understand this more, we have to break organizational fairness or justice into its three parts.
Distributive justice is the fairness of outcomes. If an employee is expecting a big raise and doesn't get one, he may feel this is an unfair outcome. An employee passed over for a promotion that she thinks she deserves may also feel that this is an unfair outcome. This assessment comes from employees comparing themselves to others; these employees will consider their own inputs into the job and what they get out of it in comparison to the inputs and outcomes of coworkers or supervisors.
If employees believe they didn't get what was deserved based on their inputs, this can make them feel unfairly treated. This is a tough situation for managers because not everyone can get a promotion or a raise, and sometimes employees overestimate their skills and abilities when it comes to what they think they contribute. That's where the next type of justice makes a big difference.
Procedural justice is the fairness of policies and procedures. Interestingly, this often has a stronger effect than distributive justice. Remember the scenario above in which an employee didn't get a promotion that she thought she deserved? If the organization has clear guidelines as to what qualifies employees for promotion, and the employee can read those and understand that the policy is not only fair but also accurately applied to the promotion decision, then negative feelings that might have been produced through a lack of distributive justice can be improved through this stronger procedural justice.
But we have to consider the flip side as well--poor procedural justice can be very damaging to a firm. If an organization has poorly designed policies or doesn't follow its own procedures, employees feel unfairly treated and begin to lose trust in the firm.
Finally, interactional justice can go a long way towards bolstering a firm's procedural justice. Interactional justice is whether managers treat employees affected by decisions with dignity and respect. One reason that I always emphasize interactional justice in my teaching is that everyone at every level of the organization can implement it. While managers may not be able to change or influence policies and procedures or make decisions about employee outcomes, they can always treat employees with respect. On a day-to-day basis, interactional justice could mean explaining procedures or decisions and doing so in a polite and respectful way. So when that employee who feels passed over for a promotion comes to you for an explanation, giving her a patient, kind, and informative rationale in which she maintains her dignity throughout will go a long way towards improving fairness.
Want to learn more? I talk about workplace fairness as part of my seminars and workshops on “Gaining a Competitive Advantage though People.” You can read more about these services or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to start a dialogue.