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Why Companies Need to Track Fairness

Employees care about getting what they want. But they care just as much about how decisions are made. People want to feel that they are treated fairly, regardless of the outcome. Psychologists call this “procedural justice.”

Procedural justice increases the effectiveness of managers, promotes engagement and satisfaction, and reduces employee burnout. And this all adds up to greater success for the entire organization.

Of course, having formal rules that promote fairness is important. But that’s just half the story.

Research has shown that it’s just as important to keep track of what’s actually going on—especially how employees feel about the decision process.

Fairness in formal rules

There are 2 important ways that formal rules can be fair or unfair.

1. How employees are evaluated

For example, performance reviews.

  • The rules might require that performance reviews are comprehensive, informative, or accurate (fair).
  • But then again, the rules might allow performance reviews that are superficial, vague, or biased (unfair).

2. How employees are treated

Sticking with the example of performance reviews, this could be a decision about promotions, pay, or future work assignments.

  • The rules might require that the person with the strongest performance review is promoted (fair).
  • But then again, different rules might leave the decision open—the manager can still promote any person they feel like promoting (unfair).

It’s important to have rules that promote fairness in both ways.

If you aren’t careful, the rules might end up promoting fair evaluation but unfair treatment (example: performance reviews are fair, but the manager can still promote their friend instead of the top performer if they feel like it).

Or, the rules might end up promoting unfair evaluation and fair treatment (example: performance reviews are arbitrary, but everyone gets the same pay raise).

That’s half the story

Now we come to the second part: informal rules.

Regardless of what the formal rules state, it’s important to pay attention to what actually happens. Rules can be interpreted in different ways, bent, or even broken. Just because employees are supposed to be evaluated fairly, doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually are. Same goes for how employees are treated.

And of course, it can go the other way around. Even if the formal rules are unfair, managers might still choose to evaluate and treat employees fairly.

Put this all together, and it’s pretty complicated. For any one decision about an employee, there are 16 possible combinations of procedural justice in the process.

Evaluation and treatment, both formal and informal, and each can be fair or unfair.

Tracking fairness

Fortunately, the first step toward procedural justice is relatively simple:


Managers can talk to employees directly.

Are you being evaluated fairly? Are you being treated fairly? Is there something that could be done to improve the situation?

Larger organizations can use employee engagement surveys.

But pay attention to what’s actually there.

Many surveys just ask employees if they’re happy or satisfied. These questions are useful in other ways, but they won’t tell you anything about procedural justice.

Is something at work fair or unfair? Is it about evaluation or treatment? Is it in the formal rules or informal practice?

Unless you ask, you won’t know the answers to any of these questions.