Companies tend to think that written policies ensure that everyone gets equal treatment, yet they constantly find that different employees have different reactions to the same policy. Sometimes those reactions cost the company a lot of money and ill will.
For example, two employees in the same company-wide layoff suffer roughly the same hardship; one sues the company, but the other does not. Or two managers relocate overseas at great expense to the company and both find that their families have trouble adjusting; one manager leaves early, but the other one sticks it out. Or two older employees have similar workloads and full responsibility for their children and aging parents at home; one keeps up at work, but the other one slacks off.
Professor Joel Brockner studied these and many other similar situations. He found one factor that helped explain them all: process fairness. The policy is one thing, but how the manager implements it is just as important. If employees think the manager is being fair procedurally, then they tend to accept bad news without conflict. If they think the manager is unfair, they fight back or bail out or turn off.
The elements of process fairness in decision making include
- giving serious consideration to employees’ input
- the use of accurate information
- opportunity for correction
- ample advance notice
- explaining why
- expressing concern and respect for the employee
When the decision process included these elements, Brockner found that employees accepted decisions as fair. The absence of these elements led to claims of unfairness and costly trouble for the company.
Process fairness has a direct economic payoff. The benefits are great: fewer lawsuits, greater productivity and fewer employees letting their work slide. And process fairness is hardly expensive; in fact, it costs nothing at all, except for a manager’s time and attention.
You would think that the economic incentives would tend to make companies implement process fairness across the board. But many firms ignore process fairness and choose to deal with problems after they arise instead of going back to their source. Process fairness is a hidden resource you can take advantage of easily and quickly, to the benefit of employees and the company overall.
Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.