Organizational Justice and the Application for Managers

By David Altounian, PhD, Interim Dean, The Bill Munday School of Business and MBA Program Director, St. Edwards University. Note: Adapted from an article original published in techbizfutures.com, June 2012.

Perception of fairness in the workplace, organizational ethics, and decision-making in high performance work systems are important components of an area referred to in the scholarly research as Organizational Justice. The concept of fairness in the workplace plays an important role in the development of an organization’s culture.

Organizational Justice is a subject that has been extensively researched and written about in many areas of academia including the management, organizational behavior, and industrial psychology disciplines. While the area has many journal articles and academic papers published over the past 20-plus years, not enough of what researchers have learned about the topic has moved into the realm of practice. Understanding the concept of organizational justice has real practical benefit for managers and leaders and applying the model and understanding the levers that influence employees’ perceptions of ‘justice’ can be a powerful tool in the workplace.

The title ‘Organizational Justice’ may not sound descriptive enough to many practitioners. Slightly switching the words to ‘Organizational Fairness’ helps clarify a little but still may not be obvious or seem to be actionable. Research and model development in the field has led to more understanding of the levers available to leaders which effect employees’ perception of fairness in the workplace.

What is most powerful about the research and the Organizational Justice model is that it provides a framework that any manager can use in processing and communicating decisions that may have an impact on company culture, employee morale, and/or team commitment levels.

Internally these are decisions such as organization changes, promotions, raises, project assignments, etc. Externally these may be decisions such as partnership choices or business negotiations.

Using the framework may provide two benefits; 1) it allows the manager to ensure that the decision is appropriate and fair before the decision is communicated, and 2) it clarifies for all parties affected the critical contributors to the decision. Many managers may be able to make good decisions but may not be good at communicating and implementing them. How many times are ‘correct’ decisions negatively impacted by poor implementation or communication of the decisions? The framework provides useful, implementable concepts that can improve decision implementation in organizations. In short, it’s a way to ensure that tough, potentially challenging decisions are fairly made and fairly communicated.

So, what is the framework? It’s made up of three specific components.

For the sake of translating this to business application I have generalized the descriptions — more detail and the empirical data that supports these three are available for anyone that wants to churn through the academic articles:

Distributive Justice

Asks the question: ‘on the surface, does the decision seem appropriate and fair regarding the decisions’ outcomes and distribution of resources?’ The outcomes or resources may be tangible (e.g., promotions, pay) as well as intangible (e.g., social recognition, praise). A manager needs to step back and ask, “will the employees in the organization view this as a fair decision”. If not, then more work needs to be done to ensure that steps are taken to address any potential negative responses by making sure that the decision is actually a fair decision.

Procedural Justice

Was the process used to make the decision fair? For decisions to be accepted as fairly arrived at it is critical to ensure that the decision followed a process that the organization (internal or external) perceive as ‘fair.’ In many cases, this may mean taking additional steps that the manager may think are unnecessary but may be critical to ensuring a fair process. For example, soliciting additional feedback on a potential promotion may be seen as unnecessary but may provide further evidence of the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of the decision. The more that there is a concern about the perceived fairness of a decision (the distributive justice component) then the more that process should be used to support the decision-making and final decision.

Interactional Justice

Was the decision communicated fairly and with respect for all parties? This component is made up of two key areas which are related; interpersonal fairness and informational fairness. To be precise, Interactional Justice states that decisions must take into account the interpersonal response and must be communicated in a way that is fair and clear. For example, communicating a potential promotion to only part of a team would likely not be seen as fair — from both an interpersonal standpoint (those not in consideration may be upset) and an informational standpoint (those not in ‘the know’ will be upset). Ensuring that decisions are communicated with an intent to be fair and sensitive to the personal impacts to individuals may positively impact the organizational perception of fairness.

This framework provides an excellent tool for thinking through decisions that may influence the perception of fairness of a decision. It may also provide a checklist to ensure that decisions that have difficult potential outcomes are well thought out. Understanding Organizational Justice is valuable for managers and executives interested in ensuring a positive work environment and the perception of a fair company culture.

References:

Greenberg, J., & Colquitt, J. A. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of organizational justice.

Hubbell, A., & Chory-Assad, R. (2005). Motivating factors: Perceptions of justice and their relationship with managerial and organizational trust. Communication Studies, 56, 47–70.

Rupp, D.E., Baldwin, A., & Bashshur, M (2006). Using developmental assessment centers to foster workplace fairness. The Psychologist Manager Journal, 9(2), 145–170

Rupp, D.E. (2010). An employee-centered model of organizational justice and social responsibility. Organizational Psychology Review, 1(1) 72–94

David A. Altounian, PhD

Dr. Altounian is the Interim Dean and MBA Program Director in the Bill Munday School of Business at St. Edwards University. He is an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and teaches in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. He was the founder and former Co-Chairman and CEO of Motion Computing, a leading provider of mobile computing products for vertical markets. Motion was founded in 2001 and acquired by Xplore Technologies in 2015. He also was a founder of iTaggit Inc., an early web 2.0 company focused on item management.

Dr. Altounian has over 30 years of management and staff experience in the technology sector with leading technology companies including Dell, Motorola, Compaq Computer Corporation and Ashton-Tate. He is a named inventor on 10 patents and a published author.

Dr. Altounian is a partner at the Capital Factory, an entrepreneurial co-working space, incubator, accelerator, and education facility. He is also a board member of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Technology Council, Ticketbud.com, GR Cooling Inc. Dr. Altounian earned his Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University and his MBA at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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