Fairness in Organizations

Fairness refers to people’s judgments that the outcomes, processes, and treatments they receive in the workplace are appropriate. Research on organizational fairness explores how people make such judgments and what happens when they judge their experience to be more vs. less fair.

My work extends current research by focusing on two broad questions.

First, why do managers often behave in ways that are seen as less fair by their employees, despite the benefits associated with acting in ways that are perceived as fairer? For example, my research explores how contextual factors, such as the managers’ workload or their social closeness to their employees, sometimes lead them to act in ways that may be perceived as less fair.

Second, why do employees react differently to similar outcomes, processes, and interpersonal treatments? That is, why are similar situations seen as fair by one person but as less fair by another? In one published paper, I show how employees’ relationships with co-workers shape their evaluations of how fair an outcome allocation is. In another example, I explore how the predictability of task interactions between employees change their reactions to more equity vs. more equality based reward systems.  

Selected Fairness Research 

With Vijaya Venkataramani

Although employees work side-by-side with co-workers, it is rare that all have exactly the same outcomes, even when the work is identical. Sometimes one employee gets a bigger bonus. Sometimes, a colleague does. How will employees judge whether such situations are fair? Equity theory suggests that if employees evaluate their co-workers’ inputs—the work itself (for example, effort)—as equal, they will judge unequal outcomes, even those that favor themselves, to be less fair. In this study, we examined whether such fairness perceptions change depending on the relationship the employee has with the co-worker. In other words, we asked: do perceptions of fairness change if the co-worker is a friend or a foe? Our results suggested that perceptions of fairness change depending on the nature (the valence) of the relationship. Specifically, if a friend gets a better outcome, for example, a bigger bonus, a typical employee judges it to be more fair than if an enemy gets a better outcome. Likewise, if the employee’s own outcome or bonus is bigger than a co-worker’s, the employee thinks it is fairer if that co-worker is an enemy rather than a friend. Additionally, we found that employees’ feelings of happiness, guilt, and anger differ after these situations of inequity occur based on the distribution, but also based on these friend or foe relationships.

With Vijaya Venkataramani and Ravi Gajendran

Fair managers can reap big dividends. Employees who feel fairly treated are better performers, helpful to colleagues, more committed to their workgroups and the organization, and less likely to steal or be rude to others. Most managers agree that fairness is not only a virtue but also sound management practice. Yet, all too often, employees find themselves being treated unfairly – their boss makes decisions concerning them without consultation or due process, or their boss is inconsistent in applying rules. They may quickly conclude that their boss is incompetent or biased, or even worse, just plain mean. Although this may be true of a few bosses, most bosses recognize the importance of fairness and want to act fairly. So why then do some bosses act unfairly, even when they recognize its corrosive effects? In this paper, we propose that one explanation is that many managers are, simply put, too busy to be fair. They are often expected to juggle multiple responsibilities under intense time and work pressures. We show that for overworked bosses, treating employees fairly may take a backseat to other pressing priorities. They are more likely to prioritize work tasks focused on supporting the functioning of the organization’s technical core over fairness-related tasks, or actions that convey fairness towards employees.

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