Justice at work is critical to employee motivation, health, and well-being and to high-performing organizations.

Workplace Justice Promotes Employee Motivation

In their study of over 400 small businesses, Krüger & Rootman focused on the seven elements of employee motivation. Workplace justice was the was the sixth element.[1]

According to Krüger and Rootman, to create a work environment conducive to employee motivation, companies must have comprehensive policies and systems that “ensure a clear understanding and equitable treatment of employees.” They were referring to “compensation systems, employee performance systems, equity systems, and organizational policies and procedures.”[2]

The Three Types of Workplace Justice

Workplace fairness has been the subject of much organizational justice research, and three key types of justice have emerged:

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is fairness in how you distribute outcomes, rights, and resources. Employees need to feel that all distribution is fair and equitable.

Procedural Justice

Procedural justice is fairness and transparency in the policies, procedures, and processes you use to make decisions. This includes your decisions about the distribution of outcomes, rights, and resources. To evaluate fairness, employees need to understand your standards or rationale.

Interactional Justice

Interactional justice is fairness in how you treat employees during the implementation of policies, procedures, processes, and outcomes.[3] Employees need to be treated with dignity, compassion, caring, and respect.

To perform at their best, employees need fair treatment in the distribution of outcomes, the decision-making process, and the way they’re treated. When they don’t get this, they react in negative and sometimes unexpected ways.

Employees’ Negative Reactions to Unfairness

Silva et al. wrote that employees’ perception of workplace fairness is influenced by how their co-workers are treated. They’ll react negatively when they witness unfairness even when they don’t have a relationship with affected co-workers.[4]

And when they’re the target of unfairness, employees’ negative reactions are much greater than when it’s someone else.[5]

The type and intensity of the reaction vary depending on the individual employee, the specifics of the unfairness incident, and the leader’s ability to manage the employee’s expectations and emotions as well as his or her own. Reactions are also influenced by the cultural climate, personalities involved, historical context, current environmental conditions, and other factors.

What’s more, how leaders manage employee reactions either serves to dispel or reinforce the perception of unfairness. Counteracting an employee’s negative reaction with a reaction in-kind only adds fuel the fire.

Employees Talk

Employees constantly talk about their experiences at work — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Whether their perceptions are right or not, it doesn’t matter. They impact the way their co-workers perceive their workplace.

This continuous exchange of information shapes and reinforces employees’ collective perception of theworkplace fairness environment.[6]

Workplace Fairness Boosts Morale

Workplace fairness is one of the top influencers of employee morale. A workplace that employees feel is fair increases morale, whereas one that’s seen as unfair damages employee motivation and well-being.[7]

Unfairness Can Make Employees Sick

Unfair workplaces take a significant toll on the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of employees. They can also 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 isn’t optional. It’s paramount.

Unfairness Hurts Organizations

Employee illness, burnout, and workplace stress can sink organizational performance. When employees frequently call out sick or report to work in poor physical or emotional health, productivity suffers. There’s also a negative impact on interpersonal relationships, customer satisfaction, and quality of work.

When unfairness permeates the environment, employees are not motivated to bring their best. An unfair and unhealthy work environment will suffer a significant loss of talent, as top performers explore their options and find better places to work.

Burned out, stressed out, and sick employees can’t bring their best to work even when they want to.

The Direct Supervisor is Crucial

The direct supervisor plays a significant role in shaping employee attitudes about their workplace.

Research demonstrates that the supervisor impacts employees’ perception of 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. Having a leadership team that’s highly competent in interacting with and engaging employees is vital. Leadership development plays a pivotal role in creating a workplace culture that motivates employees, promotes their well-being, and drives strong performance.

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

About the Author

SYLVIA MELENA is the Principal of Melena Consulting Group, a leadership and organizational development consulting firm. She is also the two-time international award-winning and best-selling leadership author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance and its Spanish translation, Responsabilidad solidaria: Cómo mejorar el rendimiento laboral por medio del apoyo.

[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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