Dec 23, 2020

BLOG: What is Organizational Justice and Why Should You Care Right Now?

Of all of the topics I’ve facilitated and run trainings on, the one that has seemed least familiar to participants is organizational justice. “Is it like restorative justice?” No. “Well what about social justice?” A little warmer. “Mob justice?” Hardly!

In some respects, one can intuit what organizational justice means just by looking at it; justice in the workplace, or how fairly employees perceive their treatment and experience at work. It might also be considered the internal-facing compliment to corporate social responsibility. Whereas corporate responsibility analyzes the social and environmental impact and outcomes of business activity, organizational justice looks at issues like the inclusivity of internal decisions like promotions or how fairly perks are distributed across the organization.

If there were ever a time for organizations to reflect on these types of practices it’s now during the so-called “Great Resignation.” One of the biggest indicators of an unjust workplace is turnover and right now we’re seeing exactly that across the economy, paired with comments from employees like: “[the pandemic] didn’t just change my perspective on my compensation, but I think it’s changed a lot about my understanding of the relationship between employers and employees.”[i]Workers everywhere are responding en masse to a labor market that has seen decades of low to no wage growth, undervaluation of employees work and personal lives, and a general disregard for the humans that file in everyday and perform the work that make their companies and shareholders money.

But that’s not your organization, right? You respect and value your employees and they know it, don’t they? The employee engagement survey always seems generally positive. Everyone is polite in the hallway, aren’t they? How can you even tell if yours is a “just” organization or not? Let’s take a closer look at what organizational justice is and how to determine whether or not you should be looking to up your game.

What is Organizational Justice, Anyway?

Organizational justice has been around for some time and there is a large body of research to support the benefits of pursuing a just workplace. Its roots come from equity theory, which looks at the fair distribution of resources.

Most experts break organizational justice down into 3dimensions:

·      Interactional Justice

·      Procedural Justice

·      Distributive Justice

Some theorists add a fourth dimension, informational justice, but for our purposes we can cover that as part of interactional justice, which is more traditional.

Interactional Justice

Interactional justice is all about whether employees perceive the ways their employers interact with them as respectful and courteous, particularly with respects to decision-making and communication. Interactional justice is typically broken down further into two types:

1.      Interpersonal Justice – In general, the perception that employers, especially through managers and leaders, communicate with employees in ways that feel respectful and courteous. Leaders acknowledging, for example, that a recent project is stretching everyone thin and even offering perks or incentives would be a positive example of interpersonal justice.

2.      Informational Justice -  How employees perceive communication from their employer in terms of truthfulness, timeliness, and transparency.

Examples of Poor Interactional Justice

·      Communications to staff clearly center the perspective and ideas of leadership and do not reflect the daily experience of employees.

·      Major decisions are made but why and how are unclear or explanations are unsatisfactory.

·      Little interaction between leadership and frontline staff

·      Transactional communication the deprioritizes relationship building (low empathy)

Procedural Justice

Procedural justice looks at how decisions are made and whether or not the outcomes are perceived to be fair. Many organizations, often unintentionally, make huge decisions behind closed doors that have sweeping effects on the daily work experience of employees. The “why” of these decisions is often unclear, how the final decisions were made feels irrational based on the vantage point of many employees, and the result is ineffective execution and resistance.

Examples of Poor Procedural Justice

·      Major decisions seem to come out of nowhere or make little sense

·      Decisions that have huge impacts on employees work experience are made without their input

·      In general, there is a feeling like employee input is unwanted or disregarded

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice examines how the benefits of working for an employer are evenly distributed. These benefits might be tangible, such as pay raises and promotions, or intangible, such as who gets invited to lunch with leadership and who doesn’t.

Examples of Poor Distributive Justice

·      Nepotism (real or perceived)

·      Certain people or teams consistently receiving positive feedback over others

·      Unequal distribution of resources

·      Unequal power centers in the organization

·      Unequal workload distribution

Signs of Low Organizational Justice

There are many signs that employees don’t feel their employers treat with them in a just manner. It can show up in a variety of ways, including:

·      Low engagement in meetings

·      Low attendance at company events

·      Minimal input and/or excessive negative feedback in culture surveys

·      Low morale

·      Turnover

·      Burnout

·      Productivity drops

·      Toxic “watercooler” talk

·      Deep change resistance

The Importance of Perception: The Firing Heard ‘Round the Org

We should note the importance of perception in understanding organizational justice, even when it might be at odds with reality. Many employees of a client I worked with recently shared a recent, major decision, that severely damaged trust in leadership: the firing of a popular employee. In our workshops, this example came up over and over. The employee was never named, and the circumstances of their firing were always discussed generally by other employees, but everyone seemed to perk up and acknowledge references to this incident. It was clear everyone knew something about what happened, and nobody seemed happy about the outcome.

Privately, I spoke to my client contact and, while I was not given any specific details, I came to understand some of the privacy and liability implications surrounding the events that led to this employee’s termination. It was clear to me that management’s hand was forced and that they couldn’t say a whole lot about it to the rest of the organization.

Still, this created fertile ground for rumors to start, assumptions to be made, and distrust to deepen. So often, especially when there are power disparities between groups, we assume the more powerful group has made decisions to deliberately harm the other or, at a minimum, without any real regard for the impact those decisions might have.

So, what can be done? We can’t always include everyone in every decision or tell everyone everything that goes on at every level of the organization. Is there anything organizations can do to maintain legal and ethical boundaries without promoting negative perceptions of treatment by employees?

Organizational Justice and DEI

Organizational justice overlaps greatly with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) issues. The social and economic superstructures that exist in our society are almost always reflected in our organizations. One need only look at pay gaps between white employees and employees of color or between men and women to see examples of distributive injustice across the global workforce. While companies are starting to awaken to the importance of, for example, employee resource groups (ERGs) and the need to better support people who experience discrimination and marginalization, we are a long way from truly opening up space for most employees and, especially, marginalized employees, to truly have a voice that influences behaviors and decisions made at the leadership level.

Working to improve organizational justice can help companies on their DEI journey to learn where there are biases in how employees experience fairness at work. Exploring what processes and cultural shifts will be necessary to more equitably and fairly treat employees will boost organizational justice and enhance progress toward a more equitable, empathic workplace.

How to Improve Organizational Justice in Your Company

The challenge faced by the client I referenced above was not just this single incident, the unfortunate but necessary firing of a popular employee. It was that this decision happened against the backdrop of a long history of opaque, exclusive decision-making by a leadership team that felt disconnected from large swaths of the organization. This disconnect was unintentional, and the desire by leaders to bridge it was sincere. So what might they do differently moving forward?

Inclusive Decision Making

For starters, any decision maker, from middle management to leadership, should really spend time looking at the decision-making process. Think about the past 6 months at work:

·      What were the biggest decisions that impacted everyone?

·      How are decision-making processes communicated to employees?

·      What input, if any, are employees given on the major decisions that affect them?

·      When input and transparency are not possible, what work is done to communicate with employees so they understand why?

One thing managers and leaders can do right away to examine recent decisions and explore how some or all of the process could be delegated down. Susan Scott’s Decision Tree helpful tool in this process.

More advanced organizations may want to explore decentralized decision-making.

Focus on Consistent, Transparent and Respectful, Two-Way Communication

Many companies don’t think deeply about communication in their organization. In fact, most humans don’t really either! We think often about what and how we want to say in the moment, but lose sight of the fact that each moment is just one of many in an ongoing conversation and that memories are long. Just because you’re saying something right, right now, doesn’t mean people have forgotten every other time you didn’t say something right.

Creating channels for employees to provide safe, anonymous feedback is a great way for employees to share their honest feelings without fear of retaliation. Be careful, here, that you actually intend to read and at least acknowledge feedback provided via such channels. The risk of worsening employee perceptions is high if you treat anonymous feedback channels as mere outlets for disgruntled employees and not spaces to learn how to be a better employer.

Having regular leadership communication cascades across the organization is another, minimal effort companies should engage in. These could be as simple as a weekly or monthly communication with employees or quarterly townhalls. Even better is for leaders to spend more time with employees across the organization. Apart from the strategic benefits of understanding what is happening across the business, it shows employees their experience matters and gives them an opportunity to build and deepen trust.

“I’m far too busy for that sort of thing,” I can hear at least one reader say. What about 3 months from now? 6 months? Is your entire calendar booked up in perpetuity? I can’t tell you how many times “busy” leaders have been stymied by that question, and how revealing it is that they refuse to even look for any time whatsoever to spend with people who, frankly, are their co-workers.

Conclusions and Takeaways

The benefits of organizational justice are myriad, from morale to productivity and, perhaps most importantly, integrity in our work. Employees are increasingly exasperated with being treated like numbers or cogs in a wheel and examining how we manage and lead organizations is long overdue. Focusing on organizational justice is a great way for companies to improve the work experience of their employees, attract and retain talented staff, and drive progress deep into the 21st century.

Key Takeaways:

·       Organizational justice consists of interactional, procedural, and distributive justice

·       Together these forms of organizational justice focus on how employees perceive the way they are treated by their employer

·       Organizational justice can be a helpful lens through which to enhance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, but it is not a replacement for deep DEI work

·      More effective communication and more inclusive decision-making enhance organizational justice 

[i] Ember,S., (2021, June 20). ‘How Do They Say Economic Recovery? “I Quit.”’ The New York Times.

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