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workplace fairness and organizational justice

Workplace Justice Influences Employee and Organizational Health

Fostering an environment of workplace justice is essential to promoting employee motivation, health and well-being and for maintaining a thriving organization.

The Seven Elements of Employee Motivation

In their study of over 400 small businesses, Krüger & Rootman focused on the following seven elements of employee motivation:

  1. Interesting and Meaningful Work
  2. Recognition and Feedback
  3. Employee Involvement
  4. Working Conditions
  5. Strong Leaders
  6. Company Policies and Environment (Workplace Justice)
  7. Compensation[1]

Element 6 –Workplace Justice (Fairness)

This post will focus on Element 6 – Workplace Justice (Fairness), which Krüger and Rootman referred to as company policies.

In their research, Krüger and Rootman asserted that, in order to create a workplace environment conducive to employee motivation, companies must have comprehensive polices and systems that “ensure a clear understanding and equitable treatment of employees.” The researchers wrote that “examples of systems that should be adhered to are compensation systems, employee performance systems, equity systems, and organizational policies and procedures.”[2] They were essentially referring to workplace justice (fairness).

Three Factors of Workplace Fairness

Workplace fairness has been the subject of much organizational justice research and can be described in terms of three organizational justice factors:

  • Distributive justice – Fairness in the actual distribution of outcomes, rights, and resources.  Employees need to feel that all distribution is fair and equitable.
  • Procedural justice – Fairness and transparency in the policies, procedures, and processes used to make decisions. This includes decisions in determining distribution of outcomes, rights, and resources. To evaluate fairness, employees need to understand the standard or rationale used in the decision-making process.
  • Interactional justice – Fairness in the manner employees are treated during the implementation of policies, procedures, processes and outcomes.[3] Employees need a high level of interactional justice where they are treated with dignity, compassion, caring and respect.

For employees to feel a high level of workplace fairness, they need to be assured that there is fairness in the distribution of outcomes, the decision-making process, and the way they are treated along the way.

Employees React Negatively to Unfairness

Silva et al. examined past research which has demonstrated that employees’ perception of fairness is influenced by the degree of fairness their co-workers experience.  Employees readily observe how their colleagues are being treated by leadership and tend to react negatively if they perceive that unfairness has occurred.  Employees exhibit this negative reaction to perceived unfairness regardless of whether or not they have a relationship with affected co-workers.[4]

However, there is a difference in the extent of employees’ reactions to perceived unfairness based on whether the target is “self” or a co-worker.  Negative reactions to perceived unfairness are far greater when employees perceive that the unfairness is happening to them than when they perceive it is happening to someone else.[5]

The type and intensity of the negative reaction can vary depending on the individual employee, the specifics of the unfairness incident, the leader’s ability to effectively manage employees’ expectations and emotions as well as his or her own, cultural climate, personalities involved, historical context, current environmental conditions, and many others factors.

Furthermore, how the leader manages employee reactions will either serve to dispel perceptions of unfairness or to reinforce them.  Counteracting an employee’s negative reaction with reaction in kind on the part of the leader will only reinforce perceptions of workplace unfairness.

The Workplace Fairness Environment

Employees influence one another’s perception of fairness in their workplace.  Individual employees continually observe and assess organizational fairness based on manager and supervisor actions, the perceived fairness experience of co-workers, their personal interpretation of fairness events, and the sharing of information between co-workers about their individual fairness experiences and interpretations.  This continuous exchange of fairness perceptions shapes and reinforces employees’ collective perception of the level of workplace fairness – the workplace fairness environment.[6]

Employee perception of workplace fairness is one of the top elements influencing employee satisfaction. A workplace environment that is perceived by employees as fair promotes employee satisfaction and increases morale, whereas a workplace environment that is perceived as unfair has a detrimental effect on employee motivation and well-being.[7]

Unfairness Can Make Employees Sick

The level of workplace fairness has a significant impact on the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of employees.  Organizational justice research has consistently concluded that workplace unfairness can contribute to serious employee illnesses.

Vigorous longitudinal studies have made a clear connection between supervisor fairness and employee health and well-being.  Supervisor unfairness has been linked to “medically certified sickness absences (Kivimaki et al., 2003), coronary heart disease (Kivimaki et al., 2005), and cardiovascular deaths (Eloviano et al., 2006).”  Furthermore, unfairness at the interactional level has a far greater impact on employee burnout and workplace stress than unfairness related to the distribution of outcomes, rights and resources.[8] Thus, the compassionate, caring and respectful treatment of employees is critical.

Unfairness Also Hurts Organizations

Employee illness, burnout, and workplace stress take a significant toll on organizational performance. When employees frequently call out sick or report to work not in top physical and emotional health, productivity suffers.  There is also a negative impact on workplace interpersonal relationships, customer satisfaction, and quality of work.

Let’s face it, burned out, stressed out, and sick employees are not able to bring their best to work even when they want to.  Unfortunately, when unfairness permeates the environment, many employees are not motivated to bring their best. An unfair and unhealthy work environment will also suffer significant loss of talent, as top performers explore their options and find better places to work.

The Direct Supervisor is Crucial

The direct supervisor plays a crucial role in shaping employee attitudes about their workplace, and this includes employee perceptions about the level of fairness.  The supervisor’s role is significant.  Research demonstrates that the supervisor impacts employees’ perception about workplace fairness to a far greater degree than the organization itself.[9]

These findings accentuate the tremendous influence that direct supervisors wield in shaping the workplace fairness environment. Thus, having a leadership team that is highly competent in interacting with and engaging employees is essential.  Leadership development plays a pivotal role in creating a workplace culture that motivates employees, promotes their well-being, and achieves the desired performance outcomes.

For organizations to have healthy, vibrant, and productive employees, ensuring workplace fairness must be a priority.

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[1]Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment?  Acta Commercii, 10(1). pp. 59 – 72.  Retrieved from http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/viewFile/114/114.  Date accessed:  October 30, 2016.   Creative Commons License.

[2] Krüger & Rootman, 2012.

[3] Silva, M.R., Zhou, Q., & Caetano, A. (2012).  (In)justice contexts and work satisfaction: The mediating role of justice perceptions. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 7(1), pp. 15 – 28. Retrieved from http://www.business-and-management.org/download.php?file=2012/7_1–15-28-Silva,Caetano,Zhou.pdf Date accessed:  January 21, 2017. Creative Commons License

[4] Silva et al., 2012. 

[5] Silva et al., 2012. 

[6] Silva et al., 2012.

[7] Silva et al., 2012.

[8] Perko, K., Kinnunen, U.,  Tolvanen, A., and Feldt, T. (2016). Back to Basics: The relative importance of transformational and fair leadership for employee work engagement and exhaustion. Scandinavian Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1(1): 6, pp. 1 – 13.  Retrieved from http://www.sjwop.com/articles/10.16993/sjwop.8/.  Date accessed:  January 21, 2017.  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.16993/sjwop.8.   Creative Commons License.

[9] Perko et al., 2012.

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Developing Strong Leaders

Strong leaders are the cornerstone of employee engagement, motivation, and organizational performance. Building strong leaders takes a significant investment of time, energy, and commitment, but the rewards are huge.

Strong Leaders

Krüger & Rootman conducted empirical research on 400 small businesses. Their findings supported what many other researchers have concluded for decades: strong leaders are essential for employee satisfaction and commitment.1

Strong leadership is about having the desire, passion, and ability to proactively identify and address the needs of employees to achieve the intended results.

The Direct Supervisor is the Key

Strong leadership is crucial at every level of the organization.  However, research has consistently revealed that the direct supervisor is the key to employee engagement, satisfaction, and commitment.  This is true whether the supervisor is a seasoned executive or an entry-level supervisor.

Clinebell et al. cited the work of Yummarino and Dubinsky (1992) which asserts that the supervisor is one of the most important factors influencing employee attitudes about the workplace.2

Furthermore, the leadership style of the direct supervisor significantly shapes the quality of the supervisor-employee relationship.  For companies and organizations that want to create great workplaces, building strong leaders must be a focal point.

The Four Leadership Styles of Supportive Accountability™

“The Supportive Accountability Leadership Model™ frames performance management using four basic leadership styles determined by how much leaders strike a delicate balance between support and accountability. These four styles are depicted below based on high and low levels of supportiveness and accountability.”3

“Leaders can operate anywhere in the continuum between high and low for both supportiveness and accountability, and the amount of support and accountability required will vary from situation to situation.”4

  1. Unsupportive Accountability is characterized by high levels of accountability and low levels of supportiveness. Leaders with this style demand high performance but don’t provide the necessary tools, equipment, and emotional support employees need to achieve it. This type of accountability can create a harsh, intimidating, and uncaring environment for employees.”5
  2. Supportive Unaccountability is demonstrated by high levels of supportiveness and low levels of accountability. Leaders who operate with a high degree of supportive unaccountability tend to worry too much about being liked and making employees happy. They have difficulty holding themselves and their employees accountable for meeting organizational goals and priorities.”6
  3. Total Avoidance is the absence of both supportiveness and accountability. This is a hands-off approach, where leaders relinquish their responsibility to lead, guide, inspire, and hold themselves and their employees accountable for meeting goals… Instead of getting ahead of problems, they operate in a reactive mode and only spring into action when fires erupt.”7
  4. Supportive Accountability is the most effective performance management style. It embodies a high level of supportiveness complemented by a high level of accountability… Effective leaders provide the right amount of support and accountability based on each situation. When performance isn’t quite up to par, they don’t look for a person to blame, but rather seek to uncover the underlying causes and to provide the support necessary for success.”8

Strong leadership is paramount for creating an environment that motivates employees and promotes strong performance.  Leaders that are highly engaged and proactive in their leadership roles are able to motivate and engage employees.  On the contrary, leaders who are passive, avoid their responsibilities, and operate in a reactive mode create a demotivating and disengaging environment.

Strong Leadership is a Skill

The great news is that strong leadership is a skill that can be learned and refined over time.  Companies and organizations that are serious about employee engagement and strong performance outcomes can deliberately hire, develop, and engage their leaders to create motivating, engaging, and high-performing environments.

Selection

The most important step in creating a strong leadership team is to hire the right people with the right talent for the right roles.  Get this wrong and the rest will be an uphill battle. Get this right and, while you will still need to exert effort in the development process, it will be a much more rewarding experience for both you and the leader.

Even if you already missed the mark on this important piece, it is not too late to work with the leader to make it right. How this will unfold depends on each specific situation.  It will take significant commitment, time, and energy, but the damage can be repaired.

Expectations

Get crystal clear on what you expect, and transfer this knowledge to your leadership team. What are your organization’s vision and mission? What are your values? What leadership approach do you expect?  This is not about micromanagement.  This is about establishing and continuously reinforcing a clear leadership philosophy for your organization.

What type of culture are leaders expected to craft, promote, and reinforce? What are each leader’s measurable goals, objectives, and deliverables? Last, but most definitely not least, what does your leadership team need and expect from you?

Talent Development

Think about the mindset and skills that are required to meet these expectations and map out a talent development plan to instill these into your organizational culture.

Depending on your goals, priorities, and capacity, you can leverage your existing training resources, develop additional internal training, or seek outside assistance. If you’re looking for an effective leadership training and development program, we provide some options:

Evaluation

Evaluate your leadership team’s progress in meeting the expectations and determine the appropriate course of action.  Have individual and group conversations with your leadership team members and their employees.  Observe their operations and get a feel for the environment.

Review performance data, customer satisfaction information, and other key performance indicators.  Avail yourself of a variety of assessment tools to gather additional insights.  However, keep in mind that data is only part of the picture.  There is always a story behind the numbers, and knowing that story is essential to making an accurate evaluation.  Getting input from the people on the front line is a good way to start understanding the story.

Feedback

Give and receive continuous feedback. The open, honest, and supportive sharing of information will help you build strong supervisor-employee relationships with the leaders you supervise.  Having continuous conversations and interactions is an essential part of leadership development, yours and theirs.

This can include formal feedback conferences, informational conversations, quick huddles, and the use of technology to communicate. The important thing is to be accessible and to communicate effectively.  Feedback, if handled properly, is a great tool for reinforcing what is expected and for building leadership muscles and confidence.

Support

Feedback is also an opportunity for you to discover the needs of your leadership team members and provide the necessary support to meet these needs.  Whether the needs revolve around tools, equipment, guidance, or emotional support, it is vital to uncover them and do your best to meet them.

It is also important to communicate with your leadership team your progress in addressing their needs. If you run into roadblocks, be transparent and share that information as much as you are ethically able to do so; it will go a long way in building trust.

Accountability and Recognition

Accountability is a vital part of performance management. Likewise, recognition is a powerful tool for rewarding and promoting great performance. These two tools are also available for building strong leaders.

Continuous Improvement

Leadership is an ongoing journey that will never end.  The moment leaders think they have mastered the art of leadership is the moment their continuous improvement and growth will end.

Great leaders are self-aware and continuously self-reflect, because human nature guarantees that they will make mistakes. We have all been there before, and we will be there again. The key is to learn from these mistakes and to commit to becoming stronger leaders because of them.

Developing strong organizational leadership takes time and effort, but the investment will yield high returns in terms of employee engagement, motivation, and tangible  results.

Post Updated: May 1, 2019


SYLVIA MELENA is the Founder and CEO of Melena Consulting Group and the author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.


1Krüger, J. & Rootman, C. (2010). How do small business managers influence employee satisfaction and commitment?  Acta Commercii,10(1). pp. 59 – 72. Retrieved from http://www.actacommercii.co.za/index.php/acta/article/viewFile/114/114. Creative Commons License.
 
2 Clinebell, S., Skudiene, V., Trijonyte, R., and Reardon, J. (2013). Impact of leadership styles on employee organizational commitment. Journal of Service Science, 6(1), pp. 139-152.  ISSN 1941-4730. Retrieved from: http://cluteinstitute.com/ojs/index.php/JSS/article/view/8244. Date accessed: January 20, 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.19030/jss.v6i1.8244Creative Commons License.
 
3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Melena, Sylvia. “The Heart of Supportive Accountability.” Chap. 1 in Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance. La Mesa, CA: Melena Consulting Group, 2018.