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Organisational Justice: scientific views for a business environment

Perhaps the basic glue that holds together the enormously varied interests, jobs, languages, and cultures represented in ebbf, is a common dedication to reflecting values in a professional context. Mostly because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we feel that it actually makes a positive difference to the quality and effectiveness of our work environments.

Take justice. Few things can be more oppressive than to feel your boss or employer is being unfair, perhaps in pay differentials, perhaps in awarding recognition, perhaps in dealing with conflict or disputes, whether it be picking on favourites, or privileging a gender, or disliking someone, or making promises to increase productivity which are then not fully met, etc.

Or within a team, where perhaps one person is doing all the work, or a sub-set of the group is left to take the blame for mistakes, or personal rivalry, or ambition, leads to withholding crucial information or undermining one’s work.

It could also be bigger picture issues, having a great job in a good team, with excellent, fair managers – in a company that exploits its workers in other parts of the world, or uses child labour, or produces products that are ultimately destructive.

The very list is depressing. But many of us will have experienced some of these sad happenings at some point in our professional lives. Clearly, a climate of injustice is unpleasant, but when it comes to the organisation itself, is it necessarily negative? Or put another way, is there any added value, beyond the moral imperative, in applying justice to the workplace?

Clearly all ebbf members would agree that justice is not only valuable in itself but effective in the long run, as a fundamental intuition born of personal values and experiences. But how does one answer the sceptic, or motivate the lukewarm, whose personal intuitions and experiences might and often do dictate otherwise (else it would not be such a problem)? Evidence is a good place to start.

Over the last two decades social scientists have been studying the effects of justice on organisations. I looked at some of the latest findings, and thought you might like to know about them also.

“Scholarly research on organisational justice” Li and Comprazano tell us, “seeks to understand what working individuals believe to be fair, as well as their responses to (in)justice.” They go on to explain that in looking at justice in the workplace, we tend to emphasise three things: “the outcomes of a decision or the allocation of some goods, the processes or policies that are used to make decisions, and the interpersonal treatment that one person decries from another.”

OK. So what are the headlines?

Justice with regard to outcomes, and justice with regard to procedures, were both “leading predictors of job stress and variants of organisational commitment”, Taxman and Gordon discovered two years ago, and when employees had a moderate to high sense of equity they were found to have “acceptance of change, stronger commitment to the organisation, and better understanding and agreement with organisational goals.” The absence of fairness and equity in the workplace, on the other hand, especially in processes and policies and procedures, fosters a greater likelihood of employee theft and retaliatory behaviours.

Over in Finland, Lindfors and his colleagues found around the same time that organisational justice was  the key factor reducing stress and its health symptoms in very high strain situations. They pointed out that their findings fit with earlier work that showed, conversely, that low organisational justice was related to long-term sickness spells. “According to longitudinal studies” they added, “poor organisational justice had the same negative power on work ability as did very high physical demands and a dangerous environment.” Now you are probably thinking primarily of that bullying boss making life a daily misery – but in fact research suggests that “a low-justice environment characterised by unjust organisational policies, practices and procedures is a greater risk to health than is unfair treatment from an immediate supervisor.” And amazing to me, “justice evaluations have been found in many studies to be related to cardiovascular and immunological response, and to emotional reactions.”

Back to Li and Coprazano, they looked at what they called organisational justice climate. Among the research they reviewed, they shared the following astounding discoveries:

  1. Absenteeism was highest, and performance was lowest when team members agreed that they were not working in a fair climate.

  2. The level of justice climate was a predictor of individual helping behaviours at work; of unit-level turnover; customer satisfaction; unit-level burnout; group-level helpfulness, and group performance.

  3. The interaction between justice about outcomes, and justice about processes, predicted employee mental health.

  4. Within team justice climate was related to satisfaction with one’s team mates and relationship conflict, as well as teamwork quality, including team communication, coordination, balance of member contribution, mutual support, effort, and cohesion.

  5. The effects of injustice apply not only to those directly affected, but also to spectators of injustice, who are affected by it even when it does not affect them personally. Our justice perceptions are affected by how we see other people are treated, not just by how we are treated ourselves.

And there is so much more! But I think this is perhaps enough to make the point? Fairness and justice in the workplace is not just morally right, it is like social and organisational oxygen, having an effect from your teamwork and productivity down to the physical beating of your heart.

So how do you do it?

Again, scratching the surface, these are some suggestions we find in the research I have touched on here:

  1. Expanded use of team processes whereby staff are involved in assessing organisational functionality and recommending improvements.

  2. Putting in place structured procedures for staff reward and punishment that are consistent, equitable and fair in both conception and application

  3. Six attributes make processes fair: consistency, freedom from bias, accuracy, representativeness of all stakeholders, correctability, and consistency with ethical standards.

  4. Leaders who are involved and dedicated to staff involvement

  5. Share information and provide adequate explanations for important decisions.

  6. Leader agreeableness was positively related to all aspects of justice; leader neuroticism was negatively related to different aspects of justice. Leader conscientiousness made another positive difference. Leaders who serve their followers and make their interests their top priority create a strong justice climate.

  7. The qualities of servant leadership that make a difference are being good listeners, empathetic, healers, aware of the needs of others, persuasive, visionary conceptualisers, able to anticipate consequences, good stewards, committed to the growth and development of others, and interested in building a community.

These words from the Baha’i writings keep ringing in my mind:

“No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquilly of the nations depend upon it.”

Again, this is but the tip of the iceberg, but enough to hopefully wet your appetite to dive more deeply into these waters. Have you any personal anecdotes that confirm what scientists are finding about workplace justice? Please share.

Keep daring.

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