Organizational justice refers to judgments of the moral rightness or social appropriateness of events in the work environment. As studied by management scholars, this organizational justice or fairness (these terms tend to be used interchangeably) is treated as a subjective judgment made by an individual or group of individuals. Organizational justice research emphasizes the description of events that lead workers to perceive fair or unfair treatment. It also focuses on the consequences of these perceptions.
Evidence indicates that employees prefer to work in a just environment. Indeed, when fairness is lacking individuals tend to be less productive, have poorer attitudes, and less well-being than when fairness exists. In other words, injustice harms both employee and employer alike. For this reason, considerable attention has been devoted to understanding the causes of injustice and suggesting ways of alleviating the resulting problems. In this regard, researchers have identified at least three classes of organizational events that can give rise to justice (or injustice) perceptions. These are outcomes received (distributive justice), the allocation process (procedural justice), and interpersonal treatment (interactional justice).
Distributive justice refers to the perceived fairness of outcomes. This is an evaluation by an individual or group of what has been received. Notice that “fairness” is distinct from “favorability.” The former refers to a moral evaluation or a judgment of normative appropriateness. The latter refers to the hedonic value of an outcome. An unqualified job applicant, for example, might be disappointed at not receiving a desirable position, but could still acknowledge the fairness of the rejection. That having been said, there is an egocentric correlation between favorability and fairness, such that we rate outcomes as more fair when they are beneficial to us and less fair when they are not.
Judgments of outcome fairness are often made by comparing the results of an actual allocation to an ideal distribution prescribed by some allocation rule. Three such rules have been especially influential: equality (to each the same), equity (to each in accordance with contributions), and need. Notice that the application of each of these rules requires that we possess some knowledge about what others have received. Consequently, we need some “referent other” to which we can compare ourselves. As our standard changes, so do our justice judgments, and this is so even if our outcomes remain constant. Other things being equal, women who are underpaid relative to men in the same position, report higher pay satisfaction when they compare themselves to other (underpaid) women, and lower pay satisfaction when they compare themselves to their better compensated male peers.
Procedural justice refers to perceived fairness of the allocation process. Whereas distributive justice is about ends, procedural justice is about the means by which these ends are assigned. When compared to distributive justice, procedural fairness tends to have a larger impact on evaluations of decision-makers (e.g., supervisory trust) and social institutions (e.g., organizational commitment). Distributive justice, on the other hand, tends to have a larger impact on evaluations of particular outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction). Six characteristics of fair procedures have been suggested. Procedures are fair when they are applied consistently, bias free, correctable, accurate, representative of all stakeholders, and consistent with ethical standards. Procedural justice has been found to be important in the design of effective human resource policies, such as those for selection, performance evaluation, and grievance resolution.
Interactional justice refers to the perceived fairness of the interpersonal treatment one receives. Interactional justice is highly correlated with procedural justice, though most contemporary scholars prefer to distinguish them on the grounds that procedures refer to formal aspects of the process, whereas interpersonal interactions refer to social aspects. In addition, the two types of justice seem to show distinct patterns of associations with other variables.
Two types of interactional justice have been identified. Informational justice refers to the thoroughness and openness with which decision makers explain and describe events. Providing an adequate explanation for a layoff would be an example of informational justice. Interpersonal justice refers to the dignity and respect with which one is treated. Politeness is an example of interpersonal justice. Informational fairness and interpersonal fairness tend to be correlated. For this reason, some scholars are inclined to collapse them together as interactional justice. Nevertheless, the recent years have seen a move for treating them as distinct, and the evidence to date is very promising.
While most research to date has examined the main effect relationships between the different types of justice and work-relevant criteria, another line of inquiry suggests that the three types also interact. It has been found that distributive justice is more strongly related to work attitudes and behaviors when procedural justice is low. To describe the same effect in a different way, if either distributive justice or procedural justice were high, then employees tended to show relatively positive work attitudes and relatively more productive work behaviors. However, if both distributive and procedural justice were low, then worker reactions became more negative. A two-way interaction of the same form has also been documented between distributive justice and interactional justice.
Findings such as these have prompted scholars to investigate the possibility of a three-way interaction among all of the different types of fairness. Though more work is needed, efforts to date have yielded some success stories. One study found that employees were most apt to engage in counterproductive work behaviors when all three types of fairness were low. Other work has found that this same interaction predicts the filing of grievance claims and reactions to affirmative action programs.
Due to the implications for both individuals and organizations, organizational justice has in recent years surfaced is an important and fruitful area of study. Organizational justice investigations focus on the events leading up to a fairness evaluation, the outcomes resulting once a fairness perception has been formed, and the contexts in which these perceptions are formed. Although focus more distantly has been on distributive justice, and more recently on procedural justice, research as of late finds interactional justice to be a promising avenue for future research.
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