Organisational Justice

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Pauliina Mattila-Holappa, Matti Joensuu

Organisational Justice

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the respective role of justice and fairness in the workplace, and its implications for worker’s health and wellbeing. Organisational justice perceptions have been linked with numerous outcomes: such as, job satisfaction, commitment, turnover, and employee health. To enhance justice in organisations, interventions applying various methods have been implemented. This article aims to provide a concise yet comprehensive discussion of the key theories of organisational justice, the evidence-base surrounding the associated antecedents and consequences of organisational justice, and outline some tools and workplace practices used to promote/enhance justice at the workplace.

Understanding organisational justice: Definitions and key concepts

Research has shown that justice perceptions can be classified into at least three broad families: distributive justice (the fairness of the outcomes), procedural justice (the fairness of the process by which outcomes are assigned), and interactional justice (the fairness of the interpersonal transaction). The following section will briefly define and discuss each broad category of justice perceptions.

The origins of organisational justice research lay largely in equity theory, developed by Adams in 1965 [1]. Under equity theory, the employee is thought to engage in an internal balancing of his or her perceived inputs (e.g., effort, experience, and education) and outputs (e.g., rewards, punishments, and allocations), in relation to a chosen “referent other’s” perceived inputs and outputs. Therefore, distributive justice refers to an individual’s subjective assessment of the fairness of an outcome distribution [2] [3].


In 1975, Thibaut and Walker introduced the concept of procedural justice [4]. In general, procedural justice refers to the perceived fairness of the process used to determine the various outcomes. It is thought that that following an unfavourable outcome, employees will respond more favourably if they believe the procedures that resulted in the unfavourable outcome were fair. In 1980, Leventhal and colleagues extended the research base of procedural justice by presenting six criteria that are theorised to enhance perceived fairness in employees, and help to assist in judging fairness of formal or structural elements within the organisation [5]. The procedures should: be applied consistently across people and across time; be free from bias; ensure that accurate information is collected and used in making decisions; have some mechanisms to correct flawed or inaccurate decisions; conform to personal or prevailing standards of ethics or morality; and ensure that that the opinions of various groups affected by the decision have been taken into account [2] [3].

In 1986 Bies and Moag extended the dimensions of organisational justice by introducing interactional (relational) justice, which refers to fairness of interpersonal treatment [6]. The same facet of justice has also been described in the literature as relational justice. More recently, interactional justice has been divided into two sub-dimensions [7]: interpersonal justice, which reflects the degree to which people are treated with politeness, dignity, and respect; and informational justice, which focuses on the communications (within the organisation) that convey information about why procedures were used in a certain way or why outcomes were distributed in a certain fashion [2] [3]. It is clear that concept of organisational justice refers to perceptual or subjective phenomena, and in this sense studying ‘justice’ refers to examining how people form justice judgments and how these judgements, in turn, affect subsequent responses. In conclusion, the three broad families of justice perceptions broadly relate to outcomes, processes, and interpersonal interactions.

The theory of organisational justice has developed step-by-step; and the debate about the dimensions of justice perceptions and their interrelationships has a substantive history. Traditionally, the research has focused on examining the unique effects of different types of justice. However, contemporary organisational justice research now focuses primarily on the effects of multiple justice dimensions, and, in turn, the integration of these various approaches/constructs the multiple organisational justice research orientations [3] [8]. The recent wave of organisational justice research, starting at the beginning of 21st century seeks to examine the integration of the facets and theories of organisational justice [3] [8] [9]. The integration of the individual concepts into one has been termed overall justice, which has been suggested also in some earlier works [5] [10]. The justification given to the concept of overall justice is that in real life situations, people are reacting to the overall experience of justice or injustice, not to specific types of justice. Considering this, it has been suggested that research also should be focused on this overall experience [3]. In short, "Justice is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, as individuals are concerned about fairness for several reasons, judge the fairness of several aspects of decision events, and use fairness perceptions to guide a wide range of key attitudes and behaviours" (pg. 45) [3].

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Figure 1. The key concepts of justice [3]

Justice perceptions and organisational outcomes

The following section aims to present a concise overview of the evidence linking justice perceptions with several organisational outcomes: including, job satisfaction and commitment [11], trust in the organisation [12], turnover [13], and organisational citizenship behaviours [14] [15]. Organisational citizenship behaviours refer to work-related behaviours that are not related to the formal organisational reward system, but still promote the effective functioning of the organisation [15].

Cohen-Charash and Spector [16] conducted a meta-analysis of 190 studies, and concluded that the different dimensions of organisational justice are partly linked to different outcomes. Distributive justice was found to be related to counterproductive work behaviours, job satisfaction, satisfaction to pay, satisfaction to management, commitment, trust in organisation and trust in supervisor, and correlated negatively with turnover intentions and negative emotions. Procedural justice was observed to have mainly the same associations to organisational outcomes as distributive justice; with the exception that it had a stronger association with work performance, which was interestingly observed to have relatively poor correlations with the other facets of organisational justice. Interactional justice was strongly associated with outcomes related to supervisor-subordinate relationship: including, supervisor satisfaction, leader-member exchange quality, and commitment. Similar unique relationships between the different justice dimensions and organisational outcomes were observed in Colquitt and colleagues’ [2] meta-analysis of 183 studies.

Moorman [14] studied the relationship between perceived fairness and organisational citizenship behaviours. This study observed that procedural justice perceptions were indeed linked to organisational citizenship behaviours (namely, altruism, courtesy, sportsmanship, conscientiousness and civic virtue). Beyond the individual level, a meta-analysis comprising 38 samples [17] revealed that a unit’s distribute justice climate was more strongly linked with unit-level performance (e.g., customer satisfaction, productivity) while unit-level processes (e.g., team cohesion, organisational citizenship behaviour) were more closely related to interpersonal justice. Moorman concludes that if employees are treated fairly they are less likely to believe that citizenship behaviour, outside their prescribed role in the organisation, is inappropriate or subject to exploitation. In a more recent review, Moorman and Byrne [15] conclude that an employee who considers that he or she has been treated in a fair way was more willing to help co-workers, promote important issues in the organisation, and treats co-workers with consideration.


In summary, the association between different justice dimensions and key organisational outcomes is well-documented. However, it seems that organisational justice dimensions succeed better in predicting attitudes rather than actual behaviour [2] [18]

Organisational justice, employee health and well-being

Poor psychosocial working conditions have been found to pose a risk for employee health [19] [20], which has also been acknowledged by the employer and employee parties [21]. Recently many studies have been conducted to explore to what extent (low) organisational justice is a risk factor for the health of employees. A growing body of evidence suggests that low levels of organisational justice are associated with a variety of different health outcomes [22]. A meta-analysis of 83 studies by Robbins, Ford and Tetrick [23] found different justice dimensions to have different relationships with work-related health outcomes. Procedural justice predicted negative affect (e.g., anger, hostility, self-blame) and physical health (e.g., hypertension, blood pressure, disease). Distributive justice predicted stress (e.g., emotional strain) and mental health (e.g., depression and anxiety), while interactional justice predicted burnout (e.g., exhaustion, cynicism) and stress.

In Ndjaboué and colleagues’ [24] systematic review, all eight studies examining procedural justice found it to significantly relate to health outcomes, including: psychiatric morbidity, sickness absenteeism, and self-rated ill-health. In the five (of eight) studies which controlled for the Job-Demand-Control-Support or the Effort-Reward-Imbalance stress models, the effect of procedural justice remained significant. Two studies examined distributive justice, finding it to relate with lower levels of depressive symptoms, sickness absence, and psychosocial health. The third justice dimension considered was relational (i.e., interpersonal) justice, which observed a relationship with poorer mental health and increased sickness absence. Even once stress models were taken into account in eight of these studies, interpersonal justice still had a significant relationship with mental health (in five studies) and sickness absence (three studies).

The mechanisms through which organisational justice affects health could be directly related to physiological responses: for example, through an increased stress-response. Organisational justice has been found to be associated to systolic arterial pressure variability [25], inflammatory markers (among men) [26] and the incidence of metabolic syndrome [27]. However, effects on blood pressure have not been found to explain the association between organisational justice and coronary heart disease [28]. Another possibility is an indirect pathway, where organisational justice influences the health related behavior of the employee or predisposes the employee to other environmental risk factors: such as, bullying. Procedural and interactional components of organisational justice and distributive justice, operationalised in terms of, as effort-reward imbalance have shown an association, albeit weak, with health risk behaviour: such as, smoking [29] and alcohol use [30] [31].

In sum, there is an indication that organisational justice is associated with employee health, but the current evidence is not strong enough to exclude the possibility that the association is non-causal or confounded by other factors [22]. No randomized intervention studies, to date, have been published where the effect of an increase in organisational justice on the health of employee's justice has been evaluated, though there a preliminary findings from quasi-experiments that that employee and/or supervisor training related to justice can reduce stress related symptoms like insomnia [32] and exhaustion [33].


Addressing organisational justice: Practices and Polices

Antecedents of justice perceptions: targeting change

In the following section, the antecedents of organisational justice and the practises and policies to cultivate organisational justice at the workplace are discussed. The research evidence suggests that in order to promote organisational justice perceptions in the workplace the following principles should be followed [2] [34].

Firstly, employees should be provided with opportunities for active involvement in the development and application of organisational procedures and policies, providing them with high levels of process control [2]. The effect or enhancement of this obtained process control, first presented by Folger [35], has been termed the "voice effect"; referring to the ability to express one's views. "Voice" has been found to have an important role in justice perceptions [36] [37]. More recently, the role of voice has been investigated in relation to procedural justice, with “procedural voice” referring to the extent to which employees have a say in resource-allocation decisions [38].

Secondly, the policies and actions at the workplace should be consistent: namely, workplace practices and policies and their respective implementation should be consistent across all times and situations [2]. Thirdly, the employees should be treated with sensitivity; and finally, when changes are made the procedures and rationales should be or communicated clearly to employees [2]. Bobocel and Zdaniuk highlight the importance of the explanations given to the employees: "In general, employees want to understand the organisational decisions or events that affect them and their co-workers, in particular when those events are unparticipated or undesired” (pg.470) [39].

In their meta-analysis, Cohen-Charash and Spector [16] examined the antecedents of organisational justice. They conclude that justice perceptions may be considered to be influenced by: (a) outcomes or rewards the employee receives from the organisation; (b) organisational practices; and (c) characteristics of the employee. The amount of pay is the most obvious reward the employees receive from the organisation. Based on the meta-analysis, Cohen-Charash and Spector [16] demonstrated a relationship between the amount of a pay raise and a (affirmative) effect on the employees' perceptions of distributive and procedural justice, although the authors expected the pay rise to be more strongly associated with distributive justice. Furthermore, research has found that employee’s perceptions of HR practices, such as good and safe working conditions, training and development, equal employment opportunities, and recruitment and selection [40] to affect employee’s perception of organisational fairness. This suggests that personnel selection and hiring process [41], and performance appraisal should consider organisational justice. For example, policy level guidelines to promote organisational justice can include legislation such as anti-discrimination legislation [42] and the actions to enhance equality between the genders at the work place [43].

The role of organisational justice is likely to be elevated in challenging organisational situations: such as, managerial dispute resolution [7], during lay-offs and other restructuring processes and in organisations tackling productivity problems [44] Folger and Skarlicki characterise lay-off situations as circumstances "when employees most need managers to treat them fairly - by providing personal attention, treating them with sensitivity, giving them adequate explanation" (pg.97) [44]. A well-managed process of restructuring has been found to be based on two-way communication, employee participation and appropriate support functions [45]. Following these principles, it is likely to observe a respective increase in perceived fairness during the restructuring process. Schaubroeck, May and Brown [46] investigated the role of communication strategies (from management to employees) used during a situation of ongoing pay freeze, and found that the explanations given to employees by management mitigated the effect of the resultant economic hardship on employee attitudes, turnover intentions, and perceptions of procedural justice. The importance of well-managed change process is evident in a study of Australian workers, where high leader-member exchange, employee participation and information, led to stronger perceptions of information and subsequently less resistance to change [34].

Characteristics of an individual employee have also been studied as a possible factor affecting perceptions of organisational justice. In a meta-analysis, [16] demographic characteristics (such as, gender, age, race and education level) were found to have only a minor explanatory role in justice perceptions. However, a significant relationship was found between salary and justice perceptions (i.e., higher the salary, higher the perceived fairness of organisational practises). As for personality variables, negative affectivity (i.e. tendency to "experience discomfort at all times and across situations, even in the absence of over stress" (pg.465) [47] was correlated negatively with procedural and interactional justice, whilst the role of self-esteem was found to play a be marginal role in exploring justice perceptions.

Organisation justice interventions

The effects of the interventions aiming to promote justice in the workplace have been evaluated in a few controlled, quasi-experimental studies [33] [48] [49].

Skarlicki and Latham [48] [50] studied the effects of leaders' justice training on union members' perceptions of organisational justice and members' citizenship behaviour. The results of the study suggest that training leaders in justice principles was observed to increase the perceptions of the leaders' fairness among union members. Cole and Latham [51] showed that the supervisors who participated in role-play exercises, aimed to train them in effective disciplinary actions, were evaluated higher on disciplinary fairness behaviour; than the supervisors in the control group.

Linna and colleagues [49] examined the effect of a participative intervention in three municipality workplaces, and concluded that cultivating organisational justice can be enhanced by using a participatory framework. The intervention was based on a shared understanding of developmental targets and well-defined development plans through which the intervention aimed to improve co-operation, subordinate - supervisor -relationships and employees' opportunities to participation. In addition, the perceptions of interactional justice were observed to increase among the intervention participants.

Van dierendonck, Schaufeli and Buunk [33] evaluated a 5-week burnout intervention, which used equity theory as its theoretical framework. The intervention aimed to reduce the perceptions of inequity by increasing the fit between the employees' goals and expectations, and their actual work situation. The results showed that burnout, absence and deprived feelings diminished in the intervention group compared to the control group. The results suggest that promoting equity may protect employees from burnout.

In summary, the results of the few controlled intervention studies suggest, that it is possible to promote employee justice perceptions by training leaders. The evidence about the effectiveness of other types of interventions to promote justice is still sparse, but some promising results have been gained.

Conclusion

To conclude, the study of organisational justice has a long tradition. Organisational justice research has developed in several phases, focusing on different facets of justice and creating numerous theories to explain the experience of justice. Studies examining the consequences of organisational justice have shown the association between justice perceptions and numerous organisational outcomes. Furthermore, there is an indication that organisational justice is associated with employee health, but the current evidence is not strong enough to exclude the possibility that the association is non-causal or confounded by other factors. Organisational justice may be cultivated in organisations by: (1) providing possibilities for process control; (2) by ensuring that the policies and actions at the workplace are consistent; (3) by treating employees with sensitivity, and (4) by explaining the processes and rationales clearly, especially during times of organisational change [2].


Links for further reading

Baldwin, S., Organisational Justice, Institute of Employment Studies, Brighton, 2006. Available at: [10].


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