How can you enhance employee effectiveness by managing fairness?

Decades of research has established that appropriately managing fairness issues is critical for employee and organizational effectiveness. While managers often focus on minimizing fairness in the workplace, this research investigated the importance of fostering fairness and its impact on employee effectiveness. Overall, this research explores what employees emphasize when considering fairness, how positive and negative emotions can emerge from fairness perceptions, and how this impacts critical employee behaviours (e.g., performance, helping, and withdrawal).

What you need to know:

Employees form their fairness judgments based on information pertaining to the: 1) perceived fairness of outcomes; 2) perceived fairness of the procedures used to determine those outcomes;, and 3) perceived fairness of interpersonal treatment.

Minimizing unfairness is important because employees who feel unfairly treated experience negative emotions which can lead to negative behaviors (e.g., withdrawal). However, it is also critical to enhance fairness because this can generate positive emotions. These positive emotions encourage employees to further engage (e.g., have higher performance and increased helping behaviours).

Further, although managers often assume focusing that outcomes (e.g., pay) is the most effective way to enhance perceptions of fairness, this research suggests that paying attention to procedures and interpersonal treatment is even more important.

More details:

What did the researchers do?

Laurie Barclay and Tina Kiefer conducted two field studies. The first was in a Canadian software development company and the second was a broader sample taken from a range of industries and organizations.
The research team examined how individuals form overall fairness perceptions. In particular, they focused on how three sub-dimensions of fairness influence overall fairness perceptions:

  • Distributive – the fairness of outcomes (e.g., pay)
  • Procedural – the fairness of the procedures used to derive outcomes (e.g., degree to which procedures are consistently applied, lack bias).
  • Interactional- the fairness of interpersonal treatment (e.g., being treated with dignity and respect; providing adequate explanations)

The researchers also examined how overall fairness perceptions are linked to positive and negative emotions, and how these positive/negative emotions differentially explain the relationship between overall fairness perceptions and behavioural outcomes.

What did the researchers find?

Although the fairness of outcomes (e.g., pay) are important, this research suggests that perceived fairness of procedures and interpersonal treatment are more influential for employees’ overall fairness perceptions.
Employees who felt fairly treated were more likely to experience positive emotions and less likely to experience negative emotions. Both types of emotions were important because they were the driving force for how employees behaved. As one might expect, positive emotions enhanced engagement-related behaviors (e.g., performance, helping), and negative emotions increased withdrawal and decreased performance over time.

How can you use this research?

Managers in tech firms can use this research to inform how they should be managing fairness issues (e.g., by resisting the temptation to focus solely on outcomes and by ensuring they pay attention to procedures and interpersonal treatment).

Although there is often a tendency for managers to be problem-focused, this research shows  it is also critical to foster fairness and positive experiences. This decreases negative behaviors and enhances engagement. The end result is employee and organizational effectiveness.

Want to know more?

Contact Laurie Barclay

Article citation: Barclay, L. & Kiefer, T. (2014). Approach or Avoid? Exploring Overall Justice and the Differential Effects of Positive and Negative Emotions. Journal of Management, 40, 7, pp 1857-1898.

Nicole Coviello

Written by
Nicole Coviello