Fairness in Workplace Key to Employee, Organizational Health

September 17, 2012

by Robin Tricoles

If you spend most of your workday contemplating the behavior of your boss, your boss’ boss, or your beloved co-workers, rest assured you’re not alone. So does Deborah Rupp—that’s her job. Rupp is an industrial-organizational psychologist, a scientist who studies human behavior in the workplace with the aim of understanding the employee-employer interface.

Rupp is particularly interested in organizational justice. “Organizational justice explores the psychological process by which employees come to judge their workplace as fair or unfair,” says Rupp. The field explores how workers experience emotions, their behavioral reactions to these emotions, and how attitudes and perceptions of an organization change.

In fact, how employees perceive a workplace and react to that perception can profoundly affect their physical and emotional health, and in turn, affect an organization’s bottom line. “A sense of justice may build commitment, loyalty, and a sense of well-being at work, whereas a sense of injustice may spark hostility, aggression, counterproductive behaviors, absenteeism, and even quitting one’s job,” says Rupp.

Until recently, organizational psychologists studied only the individual’s reaction to organizational justice, or injustice. But now employees are no longer studied in isolation. “Rather than just thinking about how one employee is treated, and how that employee responds to fair or unfair treatment, we are now considering how employees working in complex networks come to view organizational actions towards others,” says Rupp. 

Psychologists are finding that although some employee behavior is driven by self-preservation, they are also driven by morality and ethics. “Employees not only respond to how fairly they themselves are treated, but also react to the treatment of others,” says Rupp. And that includes external groups that are affected by the organization, such as local communities and the natural environment. 

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“Employees seem to have a universal concern for fairness that transcends the self,” says Rupp. “This leads workers to expect their employer to not only treat its workforce fairly, but to also be a responsible social citizen. Our research, and that of others, has shown that individuals who perceive an organization as being socially responsible are more likely to seek employment from that firm, less likely to quit, and more likely to engage in positive citizenship behaviors themselves at work. 

Rupp is now studying how interactions among workers influence their long-term perception of organizational justice in their workplace. “I want to study how fairness-related experiences are encoded into memory, categorized, and recalled over time,” says Rupp. “And I’m also interested in how the experiential memory systems of individuals in complex social networks interact with one another.” 

In fact, Rupp says a lot of research in the field is becoming multilevel. “This means that we recognize that employees are embedded in groups and teams, which are embedded in organizations, which are embedded in society,” says Rupp. “What we are finding is that over time, employees who work together, share experiences, and share environments process social information collectively. This type of processing leads to more lasting justice climates, which set the tone for a positive or negative work environment.”

Which is important to workers and employers alike. “We’re finding these climates, or group-level justice perceptions, predict employee-, group-, and organizational-level outcomes above and beyond what we can predict from individual perceptions of justice,” says Rupp. “And this really speaks to the lasting effect employee mistreatment can have—even among those who are not the targets of the unfair acts.”

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Deborah E. Rupp, PhD, is the William C. Byham Chair in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Purdue University. She studies organizational justice, emotions at work, corporate social responsibility, and behavioral assessment. Rupp is a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), the Association for Psychological Science, and the American Psychological Association. She is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Management and currently serving as a SIOP representative to the United Nations. To learn more about Rupp’s research, please visit her faculty page at Purdue University. 

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