Tuesday, April 10, 2018

If You Trust Your Workplace, You Assume It is Fair

Periodically, dissatisfied employees will stage a job action in which they will do the minimum amount of work necessary to keep their job.  For example, in early 2015, New York City police minimized the number of arrests they made, to protest comments made by the mayor.  Similarly, teachers who are upset with contract negotiations may arrive at work and leave exactly on time rather than coming early or staying late to help students.
For this reason, it is important for organizations to maintain a sense of fairness among employees in order to get them to put in their best effort.  What drives this sense of fairness?
This question was explored in a paper by Emily Bianchi, Joel Brockner, Kees van den Bos, Matthias Seifert, Henry Moon, Marius van Dijke, and David De Cremer in the January, 2015 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Their starting point is the observation from previous research that people in organizations are influenced by two sources of fairness:  outcome fairness and procedural fairness. 
Outcome fairness is focused on whether the things that happen seem fair.  For example, a raise may seem fair if the size of a raise is consistent with a person’s evaluations and people with similar evaluations got similar raises.  Obviously, if the outcomes are not just fair but favorable, that is even better. 
Procedural fairness refers to the way that decisions are made.  If raises are given out arbitrarily, that does not seem like a fair system.  But, if there is a reasonable procedure that people think is objective, then they believe the procedure is fair, even if they don’t get what they think they deserve.
Both of these sources of fairness may influence the way people feel about the workplace. 
To explore this possibility, one study looked at a sample of employees of a shipping company in the UK.  The participants had worked for their company for an average of 4 years.  Participants were asked how much trust they had in the bosses at work.  They were also asked whether they thought that the outcomes the experienced (for things like pay and work schedule) were fair, as well as whether the procedures used to make decisions were fair.  Finally, they were asked questions about their level of commitment to the organization.
When people had a low level of trust in the organization overall, then they had a low level of commitment, unless they experienced both fair outcomes and believed that the procedures were also fair.   
When people had a high level of trust in the organization, then they had a high level of commitment, unless they experienced both unfair outcomes and believed that the procedures were unfair.
A second study obtained a similar pattern of results from a sample of workers for a variety of companies in the United States. 
What does this mean?
When people trust the organization they work for, then they have a high level of commitment.  That is no surprise. 
Interestingly, though, they look for evidence consistent with their trust.  So, if they perceive that there are fair outcomes or fair procedures, they assume their trust is warranted, and they keep their high level of commitment.  Only when they get lots of evidence that their trust is misplaced do they decrease their commitment to the workplace.
When people have a low level of trust to start with, then their commitment to the organization is low unless they get lots of evidence that the workplace is actually fair.  That is, they need both high levels of fairness in outcomes and procedures to overcome their lack of trust.
Clearly, people’s prior beliefs about trust and fairness have a big influence on the way that people interpret what is happening at work.  It takes a lot of evidence to change people’s beliefs about the workplace.
One other piece of evidence consistent with this idea is that this pattern of results was strongest for people who had not worked long for their company and got weaker as people’s tenure with the company got longer.  That is, early on, people have a level of trust in the organization that can be affected by the combination of outcome and procedural fairness.  After a while, though, that level of trust in the organization (whether it is high or low) is not changed much by new information.
Ultimately, this is another great example of a halo effect.  People’s beliefs about the trustworthiness of an organization affect their interpretation of the evidence they get.  For this reason, it is important for people in organizations to work hard to gain people’s trust early so that their employees may overlook small violations of fairness.