Testimonials: lockdown induced unfairness at work
By Thierry Nadisic, Professor of Management and Human Resources, and Director of Innovation
Lockdown came as a shock and generated many unfair incidents at work: the possibilities to actually be confined were uneven, not everyone had access to the same level of safety, being granted voice in decision making processes was often questioned and many situations undermined the respect one usually has for employees and their work.
Now that lockdown is being released, trust can only be retrieved if those feelings are rectified. So what can managers do? Fair management is a sure route when based on the acknowledgement of the different types of injustice research has identified.
Nadou* is relocated to a new office previously occupied by someone who was found Covid-10 positive, and is currently on sick leave. She is requesting the office to be disinfected. She is told that the infected person hasn’t been back in the office for several days and that there is no risk whatsoever.
The next day, she is told that her manager’s office was disinfected because his assistant’s spouse had contracted the virus. She cannot help but wonder, is there a double standard here?
Charles belongs to a team considered as strategic, implying that he must come to work every day. Headquarters are almost empty. He wishes he was also working from home just like his co-workers from the other departments.
He also realizes that Directors are all working remotely, regardless of their responsibility. He is wondering why some deserve to be better protected than others, when their assignments do not seem to require it.
Both cases reflect the notion of distributive injustice employees may feel when tasks, remunerations or duties are not distributed according to legitimate rights and merits. Safety should be accessible to all according to equality rights, and teleworking should be granted according to activity requirements rather than hierarchical status.
Naziha is a training manager. As soon as lockdown begun, she designed alternative plans so that the whole of ongoing trainings continued to be taught remotely. The Executive Committee announced that the top two priorities were business continuity and staff safety.
For several weeks, the Executive Committee was unable to make a decision and opt one way or another. All trainings were on stand-by and Naziha was left with no visibility for the near future.
Jérémy is a dedicated project manager in a company where the empowerment culture has been developed for several years now: he has extended power of initiatives in his delegation area. Additionally, he is given the required means to work and he accounts for his goal achievements retrospectively.
Lockdown suddenly caused decision making to be centralized. All of a sudden, Jeremy’s work organization was subjected to hierarchical decisions with no possible expression of his needs. And since the pandemic and authorities’ decisions were rapidly evolving, he had to endure many demands and counter demands. Ever since, he is not as involved.
These two events generated a feeling called procedural injustice. This means that decision making procedures were considered to be unfair. This is true especially when decision making is unstable or when the opinion of the people involved is disregarded. The feeling induced is less visible, and yet often stronger than for distributive injustice.
Paolo is in charge of a banking agency. Only half of his work is carried out onsite. The agency is open for appointments only, but customer requests continue to be processed by phone, email and via videoconferencing, which represents a significant workload. During a videoconference with his manager, the latter showed signs of impatience.
He implied that since the agency was closed to the public, Paolo’s team wasn’t doing much. That is probably why he told him it was high time to put pressure again on sales, and more specifically, to recommend insurance diagnosis to customers the team is in contact with.
Paolo passes on the request to his co-workers who are upset about it. They feel that they are working in still difficult conditions, that their effort is undermined and that they should be taken into account before they are asked to do more.
Géraldine was appointed deputy director a few weeks prior to lockdown. As of that very day, her director managed the activity of the whole department remotely and directly, no longer involving her.
She knows the relationship is a little tense, and that it grew even tenser more recently. But she is deeply upset to be set aside and have no information, and be left with no explanation. She talked about it with her manager. The latter only replied that in the current circumstances, it was up to her to determine the content of her job.
These two incidents generate a feeling called interactional injustice[TL1] . This is the most powerful feeling of injustice. It is felt when employees are disrespected, when managers show no empathy and when employees are left uniformed and with no explanation regarding the decisions made impacting them.
During the current crisis, many managers are faced with stress management issues and may develop a tendency to react in an interactionally unjust manner. This will generally be felt in an even more painful way than procedural injustice.
Consequences are mostly invisible
Injustice at work generates surprising and unfamiliar consequences. Most of the time, we are under the impression that nothing is going on. It is indeed quite rare that an employee who feels unjustly treated actually demonstrates anger, raises his/her voice and seeks redress.
Such reactions are only seen when the victim feels he/she can actually have power over the circumstances. Yet, an employee in a subordinate relationship is exposed to his/her manager. His/her reactions to injustice will be kept rather invisible. Injustice causes a distrust, in turn generating two types of behaviors.
How will Nadou and Charles react? What about Naziha and Jérémy? Paolo’s team and Géraldine?
The three types of injustice were presented from the least to the most strongly felt.
For distributive injustice (experienced by Nadou and Charles) and mild procedural injustice alike what Naziha has experienced, studies showed that employees will continue to meet expectations and job requirements.
However, they will cut back on what we call “extra role performance”, that is, everything they used to do as extra to keep the company running, like taking phone call messages on lunch break, or welcome and help integrate a newly arrived co-worker despite a heavy workload.
The absence of such behaviors will go unnoticed. It will nonetheless have a substantial negative impact on performance.
If procedural injustice is stronger (what Jérémy experienced) or if it is interactional (what Paolo’s team and Geraldine experienced), employees engage most often than not, in “organizational retaliatory behaviors”. This may go from late arrival, longer breaks, to sabotaging or robberies on the manufacturing line, or negligence in task performance such as untidy workshop or unprocessed claims.
Acknowledging and correcting injustice
To avoid both disengaged and antagonist behaviors, it is crucial to rebuild trust by re-implementing fairness in the company. True, retrieving trust by implementing fair management takes longer than losing it by being unfair, but it is nonetheless worth taking the walk back.
And now that staff members are gradually going back to work, what do we do next?
First of all, we must correct distributive, procedural and interactional injustice in a concrete manner. Remuneration gaps, right and duty gaps must be based on legitimate differences linked to performance or to activity requirements.
Decision making procedures must be stabilized, and the right to express one’s voice for staff involved must be considered as central again. Finally, given that the situation is less unstable, and that managers are calming down, all employees must be able to feel respected again at work, to regain dignity and to be given the information they are entitled to.
But that’s not it! It is important that managers acknowledge the injustice employees may have felt, and that they take responsibility for the triggering events. If this is done openly, discussing and sharing will help the managers of Nadou and Charles, those of Naziha and Jérémy, and those of Paolo and Géraldine to reconnect with them.
Most of the time, we prefer that the feeling of injustice remains trapped inside the employee’s heart. Quite the opposite, we need to release and unlock it by accepting it and listening to it, as offices are reopening for bodies and minds.
*All names have been changed
Thierry Nadisic contributes to knowledge and practices on how to enrich and improve human relationships. His research addresses issues of fair management and well-being at work. His training and coaching activities emphasize leadership, change, team management, and growth of teams and individual executives. He disseminates his work through conferences, articles in the media, and through his blog in French thierry-nadisic.com
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