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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.


[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  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–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  Date accessed:  January 21, 2017.  DOI:   Creative Commons License.

[9] Perko et al., 2012.