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April 24, 2009

Be Fair, But Beware

Catherine New
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How can managers prepare for the less beneficial outcomes of practicing fairness?

According to the research of Professor Joel Brockner, both staff and management alike benefit when a firm makes a strong commitment to practice fairness. While there are some barriers to implementing fair process, Brockner says, it’s undeniable that firms that do so consistently see higher levels of employee commitment and productivity and that their employees report more job satisfaction and less stress — which makes overcoming those barriers a worthwhile investment. His research is featured in the most recent Ideas at Work.

But fairness can come at a cost.

“If people feel that the process was handled fairly regarding a decision that they will not be happy with, such as the loss of a job, or the failure to get a promotion, there is less resentment directed toward to the organization,” he says. “But the potential risk is there is more self-blaming and more low self-esteem.”

The tenure system illustrates the dilemma of process fairness. “When someone is turned down for tenure, the last thing they want to hear is what a fair process it was because then they feel like ‘OK, I got what I deserved.’ If they got what they deserved and the outcome is bad then they may feel badly about themselves.”

Brockner’s advice to managers? “The negative consequences of fair process don’t mean you should forego fairness. Practice fairness but also be aware that people may end up feeling badly about themselves and take additional action to counteract it.”

For example, Brockner and his co-authors recently found that people who engage in corporate-sponsored volunteer activity often feel more committed to the organization, precisely because the act of volunteering reaffirms their sense of self.

“There is a conundrum when you dole out unfavorable outcomes. If you are fair, people blame themselves, if you are unfair, then they blame you. So beware — you’ve got work to do as a manager either way.”

Learn more about Professor Brockner’s research in Columbia Ideas at Work, where he outlines the keys to process fairness and offers guidelines to help firms make hard decisions in a fair way. Read more about (download file) his research on the downside of process fairness.

Photo credit: Eric Lemoine