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Organisational Justice: People and their Perceptions

22 August 2011

± minute read

    Organisational Justice: People and their Perceptions
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How often do you find yourself in a conversation with family or friends where someone is complaining about the fact that their organisation, boss, or colleague treated them unfairly? Like me, I am sure that you sometimes just acquiesce so as to avoid an arduous discussion regarding the ins and outs of the injustice.   I find the concept of fairness an interesting one. If better understood any person (working in an organisation or not) could benefit from incorporating the insights into the way they interact with others. Lets briefly unpack a concept called Organisational Justice (coined by Greenberg, 1987) which I came across a while back which I believe can be particularly useful when interacting with, supervising, managing or leading others.

What is organisational justice?

Organisational Justice is essentially the perception of fairness and the reaction to those perceptions in the organisational context (Greenberg, 1987).  It is broken down into three areas namely:

  • distributive justice
  • procedural justice
  • interactional justice

Distributive justice

Distributive justice, based on equity theory, refers to the perceived fairness regarding a person’s perceived input versus the reward obtained (Adams, 1963). A simple example would be “I work so hard for this company so I deserve to be paid much more”. In this example the individual feels unfairly rewarded.

Procedural justice

Researchers found that there is more to this than meets the eye. Enter procedural justice.  As the name implies, procedural justice is the perception regarding the process followed to arrive at a particular outcome (Leventhal, 1980).  In keeping with the remuneration example, “sure, I am paid well but how did you arrive at that number and why didn’t you consult me on this?”. Issues such as opportunities to discuss the outcome as well as the consistency of that outcome happening in other situations can all influence a person’s perception of procedural justice.

Interactional justice

Lastly, interactional justice refers to the manner in which information is communicated and the explanation given (Bies & Moag, 1986).  So, if your boss tells you that you are not getting an increase but in a manner which is sensitive and with a well-timed thorough explanation, researchers Bies & Moag (1986) suggest there is a good chance that you may perceive the outcome as being fair.  Matters such as respect, honesty and timing are critical when it comes to perceptions of fairness (Colquitt, 2001).

Fairness is a perception

The complexity of Organisational Justice is compounded by the fact that we ‘perceive’ fairness and no matter how honest, sincere, timeous, transparent or consistent you are some people may still see you as being unfair.  To make matters worse, consider the following example: You find out that you are no longer receiving a bonus and you become angry.  When angry, our thoughts may become clouded and to compound matters, as Ekman (2003) points out, we may try to find reasons to remain angry. This will certainly influence our perceptions of fairness where we seek out further information to build our case to remain angry about the perceived injustice.

Managing perceptions of fairness

Psychology has undoubtedly shown us is that we are complex beings with complex perceptions of, and interactions with, the world.  Organisational Justice provides us with the practical means of understanding fairness.  As with any model of understanding you will be able to understand yourself as well as others better, and ideally use this to enhance your relationships. Depending on your position (the plaintiff or the accused) you will be able to understand how your actions, decisions and so on can come across as being fair or unfair, and/or secondly why you feel that you have been treated fairly or unfairly.  In the context of people supervision, management and leadership the following points can contribute to effectively managing perceptions of fairness:

  1. Contracting up front. In order to manage expectations it is always beneficial to contract up front to avoid challenges regarding perceptions of equity.  Continue talking and revisiting expectations so as to avoid disappointment.  This explanation also applies to whether you are providing the service or paying for the service, the manager or subordinate and so forth.
  2. Consistency.  Be consistent in how you interact with others.
  3. Communication. Be willing to enter into discussion regarding decisions/actions made.
  4. Transparency. Be prepared to justify inconsistencies.
  5. Timeliness. Be prepared to communicate sooner rather than later.
  6. Respect and sincerity. Authenticity in any explanation or justification is critical.  Deliver difficult messages sensitively (yet appropriately).  This is as important as the content of the message.

Author: Gareth Hallett


Adams, J.S. (1963). Towards an understanding of inequity. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 422-436. Bies, R. J., & Moag, J. F. (1986). Interactional justice: Communication criteria of fairness. In R.J. Lewicki, B. H. Sheppard, & M. H. Bazerman (Eds.), Research on negotiations in organizations (Vol. 1, pp. 43–55).Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. Colquitt, J. A. (2001). On the dimensionality of organizational justice: A construct validation of a measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 386–400. Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York. Henry Holt & Company. Greenberg, J. (1987). A taxonomy of organizational justice theories. Academy of Management Review, 12, 9–22. Leventhal, G.S. (1980). What should be done with equity theory? New approaches to the study of fairness in social relationship. In K. Gergen, M. Greenberg, & R. Willis (Eds.), Social exchange: Advances in theory and research (pp. 27-55). New York: Plenum Press.

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