Do you ever make decisions whose outcomes are viewed as unfair by employees? Do you hear employees ask questions like: "Why does John get to work a flexible schedule and I don't?" or "How come Lisa got that promotion when everyone knows I'm more qualified?" Do you struggle with decisions between equally undesirable outcomes? Would you like to significantly reduce the number of complaints about the unfairness of workplace decisions? If you answered "Yes" to any of these questions, a simple concept called procedural fairness may be of interest to you.

There are two aspects of fairness that are particularly relevant to decision-making. Distributive fairness addresses the outcome of a decision; procedural fairness speaks to the process or rules by which the decision was made. To illustrate the distinction between these concepts, think of a homemade apple pie and twelve hungry pie lovers. Suppose that everyone agrees that the fair way to distribute the pie is to split it evenly among those present. Though some of the pie lovers may be unhappy at the miniscule size of their share, they accept it because they believe the process by which the group made the decision was fair.

Managers constantly have to make decisions about how to allocate scarce resources. Often the decisions result in outcomes that neither the managers nor the employees like. The good news is that while managers may not be able to control the outcomes of many decisions, they can control the process by which they make decisions. More importantly, research shows that people will accept even undesirable outcomes if they believe the processes used to arrive at those results are fair. For example, suppose three very qualified individuals have applied for one position. Management cannot justify creating two more positions to accommodate the excellent employees, so two people are likely to be unhappy that they were not selected. However, if the employees knew the criteria and the rules in advance, and if they believe the selection process was transparent, reasonable, and free of bias, they will accept the decision, even though two of them would have preferred a different outcome.

Perceptions of procedural fairness have implications for important workplace attitudes and behaviors. For example, employees who see decision-making processes as fair tend to go above and beyond what their jobs require, perform at a high level, and trust decision makers. The organization benefits in other ways: employees who perceive decision-making processes are fair tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, forgiving of perceived violations of organizational commitments, and likely to contribute to organizational change than their counterparts who believe the processes are unfair.

Procedural fairness has many applications to decision-making in the workplace. Examples include decisions related to pay, making and following rules, standardizing professional work, organizational change, discrimination complaints, managerial control, and teamwork. In short, there are many opportunities for you to realize the myriad of benefits listed above.

For suggestions of how to ensure that your organization's decision-making processes are perceived as fair, please see Ensuring Procedurally Fair Decision-making Processes.

In short, fairness of decision-making processes is critical to employees' acceptance of their outcomes. Ensuring that employees perceive decisions as procedurally fair literally can transform your workplace from one where complaints, mistrust, and dissatisfaction are common to one in which employees take disappointments in stride and continue to contribute positively to the organization. You have the power to shape your employees' behaviors in a positive way or a negative way. Which outcome do you choose for your organization?

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.


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