Organizational Justice

Organizational justice refers to individual or collective judgments of fairness or ethical propriety. Investigations of organizational justice tend to take a descriptive approach. As such, an event is treated as fair or unfair to the extent that one believes it to be so. In other words, justice research is concerned with identifying the antecedents that influence fairness judgments, as well as the consequences once such an evaluation has been made. Notice that this descriptive approach does not tell organizations what really is fair, only what people believe to be just. This empirical perspective complements the normative frameworks beneficially employed by philosophers whose prescriptive approach typically attempts to ascertain what is objectively right or wrong by using reasoned analysis.

The sense of justice has a strong impact on workers’ behavior and attitudes. For example, perceived fairness promotes such benefits as organizational commitment, effective job performance, and increased organizational citizenship behavior. Justice also helps alleviate many of the ill effects of dysfunctional work environments. For example, perceived fairness reduces workplace stress, vindictive retaliation, employee withdrawal, and sabotage.

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Different Types of Organizational Justice

Generally speaking, judgments of fairness can be said to have three targets:

  1. Outcomes: distributive justice
  2. Allocation processes: procedural justice
  3. Interpersonal treatment: interactional justice

Distributive Justice

Research suggests that distributive justice is distinct from outcome favorability. Although these two variables are correlated, the latter is an appraisal of personal benefit, whereas the former concerns moral appropriateness. Individuals decide whether a given allocation decision is fair by examining the actual result in light of some idealized standard. Three standards or allocation rules have been most widely discussed: equity (allocations based on contributions or performance), equality (equivalent allocations for all), and need (allocations based on demonstrable hardship). Each of these rules may engender a sense of distributive justice for some people under some circumstances. For example, an equity allocation rule is more likely to be seen as appropriate when the participants are North Americans, when the goal is to maximize performance, and when the divided benefit is economic. An equality allocation rule, however, is more likely seen as appropriate when the participants are East Asian, when the goal is to maximize group harmony, and when the benefit that is being divided is socioemotional.

An interesting line of research suggests that equity and equality allocation rules can engender distinct organizational climates. For example, when resources are divided based on individual performance, there is a greater disparity between the top and bottom income brackets and a relative lack of cooperation. When resources are divided based on equality, there is obviously less income disparity; along with this comes greater social harmony and more intergroup cooperation.

To employ each allocation rule, an individual needs to evaluate the relative gains (or losses) of at least two individuals. These cognitive operations are facilitated by the existence of a referent other that can serve as a sort of baseline standard. For example, someone seeking equality can expect uniform earnings among everyone in a group. This correspondence can best be ascertained with knowledge of others’ profits. Equity is even more cognitively complex, so it is necessary to calculate earnings relative to contributions and to compare this ratio to the ratio of the referent. The intriguing result of these cognitive operations is that distributive justice may not be absolute. If a referent changes, a person’s distributive fairness judgments may also change, even when the actual allocation remains constant. For example, when female workers are underpaid relative to their male counterparts, they will see this as distributively unfair when the more highly paid men are their referent. However, if they use other underpaid women as their referent, they sometimes perceive less injustice.

Procedural Justice

Especially important to the study of organizational fairness is work on procedural justice. Procedural justice researchers agree that workers are interested in the outcomes they receive (that is, in distributive justice). However, they add that employees also attend to the process by which these outcomes are assigned. Procedural justice is an especially strong predictor of such outcomes as organizational citizenship behavior, organizational commitment, trust, and so on. Generally speaking, processes are likely to be judged as fair if they have some combination of the following attributes: They are accurate, consistently applied, free from bias, representative of all concerned, correctable when mistakes are made, and consistent with prevailing ethical standards. Other research suggests that fair procedures should provide advance notice and not violate privacy concerns.

A large body of research has investigated the design of human resource systems in light of procedural justice considerations. This work has examined personnel procedures pertaining to performance evaluation, affirmative action programs, workplace drug testing, staffing, family-leave procedures, layoff policies, compensation decisions, conflict resolution procedures, and so on. Generally speaking, this work suggests that fair procedures can bring benefits to organizations, in the form of more effective job behaviors and more positive work attitudes.

Interactional Justice

In addition to an outcome and a formal process, scholars have also found that the interpersonal treatment that an individual receives is an important part of his or her justice perceptions. This notion of interactional justice was identified more recently than distributive or procedural justice, but it now has been well established as an important workplace variable in its own right. Researchers have divided interactional justice into two parts: informational justice and interpersonal justice. Informational justice is based on the presence or absence of explanations and social accounts. A transparent promotion decision would likely be seen as informationally fair. Interpersonal justice is concerned with the dignity that people receive. Interpersonally fair treatment is respectful, honest, and considerate of others’ feelings. A racist remark during a job interview would likely be seen as interpersonally unfair.

Interactional justice is an important predictor of such variables as supervisory commitment, citizenship behavior, and job performance ratings. In addition, individuals are much more accepting of misfortunes such as downsizing when the process is implemented in an interactionally fair fashion. Given this practical value, attempts have been made to train decision makers to show more interactional justice. Such efforts have shown some success, and evidence suggests that training in interpersonal fairness can create a more effective work unit.

To date there remains less than complete consensus as to the structure of interactional justice. Because the informational and interpersonal components are correlated, some scholars treat them as manifestations of a single construct. More recently, others have separated interactional justice into these constituent parts, treating informational and interpersonal fairness as separate constructs. This new model has four factors: distributive, procedural, informational, and interpersonal. This model is promising, but the empirical evidence is as yet limited.

Studying Justice: Main Effects and Interactions

The three manifestations of justice can be studied in terms of either their main effects or their interactions. Main effect studies compare the impact of one type of justice beyond the effect of another. Interaction studies explore how different types of justice work together to influence employee attitudes and behaviors.

Main Effects of Justice

Especially prominent in this regard is the two-factor model. The two-factor model maintains that distributive justice, when compared with procedural justice, better predicts individual reactions to specific allocation decisions. For example, the distributive justice of a person’s compensation will be correlated with pay satisfaction. Procedural justice, however, tends to be the more efficacious predictor of reactions to organizations as a whole. For example, procedural justice will be correlated with organizational commitment. Data in support of the two-factor model lead many scholars to propose that procedural justice, when compared with distributive justice, is especially important for maintaining loyalty to institutions.

The multifoci model provides a similar main effect comparison. Multifoci researchers agree that reactions to organizations are best predicted by procedural justice. However, they add that interactional justice demonstrates an especially strong association to supervisory commitment and behaviors targeted to benefit a person’s immediate boss. In this regard interactional justice tends to engender high-quality leader-member exchange relationships, as well as helpful citizenship behaviors directed toward supervisors.

Interactions among Justice Types

Scholars also have examined the interactions between different types of justice. Generally speaking, individuals appear to be reasonably tolerant of a distributive injustice if the allocation procedures are viewed as fair. Likewise, they seem reasonably tolerant of a procedural injustice if the outcome is deemed to be appropriate. However, when both the outcome and the process are simultaneously unjust, worker reactions are especially negative. Put differently, distributive justice strongly predicts work-relevant attitudes and behaviors when the procedure is unfair; it is a weaker predictor of attitudes and behaviors when the procedure is fair. Research has also documented a similar two-way interaction between distributive and interactional justice. Specifically, individuals can accept a poor outcome if it is assigned via a fair interaction. Conversely, they can accept a poor interaction if it yields fair outcomes. However, employees become distressed when both things go poorly at once.

Recent research has begun to consider the interaction among all three types of justice together. Investigations of the resulting three-way interaction have been quite promising. This line of inquiry finds that the aforementioned two-way interaction between distributive and procedural justice is only significant when interactional justice is low. To state the matter in a different way, reactions are most negative when individuals experience all three types of injustice at the same time. Only a few studies have been conducted, but so far all have supported the existence of this three-way interaction.

Why People Care About Justice

It is not intuitively obvious why workers would care about justice, as opposed to their pecuniary benefits. Several models have been proposed and tested, but it is important to recognize that these are not mutually exclusive. Most experts believe that employee responses to injustice are influenced by multiple considerations. Here we will consider the best known accounts, including economic self-interest, the control model, the group-value model, social exchange theory, and deontic justice.

Economic Self-Interest

One early and still influential proposition is that the concern for justice is motivated by a sense of economic self-interest. The fairest system, according to this framework, is the one that maximizes long-term benefits. Even if a single decision is not personally beneficial, long-term payouts are apt to be greater if the individual can rely on fair distribution systems and procedurally just policies. There is evidence in favor of the self-interest model. For example, high performers tend to prefer equity allocations (presumably because their payment will be higher when based on contribution), whereas lower performers tend to prefer equality allocations (presumably because their payment will be higher when everyone earns equivalent amounts). Despite such evidence, self-interest does not seem to be the only motive for justice. For example, if a process is fair individuals tend not to derogate decision makers, even when their outcomes are less than favorable.

The Control Model

Another early framework for understanding justice is the control model. According to the control model, justice matters because it provides people with some means of influencing decisions. This control could be exercised at the decision stage (somewhat akin to distributive justice) or at the process stage (often interpreted as procedural justice, and especially voice). Based on this, research has found that individuals will report some measure of fairness if either decision or process control is present. When they lose both forms of control, of course, people tend to report less justice. The control model was originally formulated within the context of legal proceedings. It has been especially influential in research pertaining to conflict management, plea bargaining, and employee involvement in decision making.

The Group-Value Model

An especially popular approach is the group-value (also called the relational) model of justice. According to the group-value model, individuals are concerned with their social status or standing within important social groups. Injustice in this respect is perceived as a lack of respect on the part of authority figures, and an individual does not feel like an esteemed member of the organization or community. Fairness, and especially procedural fairness, is desirable because it signals that a person is valued by the group and is unlikely to be mistreated. This model makes intuitive sense and evidence supports it. For example, research suggests that procedural justice is a better predictor when it comes from groups with whom individuals closely identify, and it is a less efficacious predictor when it comes from groups not identified with as closely. This is consistent with the group-value model, because standing should be of greater consequence within an important group and of less consequence within an unimportant one.

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory provides an interpersonally oriented understanding of justice but does so in a somewhat different fashion than the group-value model. According to this framework, employees often have economic exchange relationships with their employers and coworkers. These relationships are quid pro quo, with clearly delineated responsibilities for each party. Fair treatment, especially procedural and interactional justice, can create social exchange relationships. These higher-quality relationships tend to involve emotional attachments, a sense of obligation, and open-ended responsibilities to the other party. Justice, therefore, improves performance; furthermore, it engenders citizenship behavior by improving the quality of the relationships among employees, between employees and their supervisor, and between employees and the organization as a whole. There is also solid evidence supporting this model. For example, the impact of procedural and interactional justice on work behavior seems to be at least partially mediated by the quality of interpersonal relationships.

Although the group-value model and social exchange theory both highlight the importance of relationships, they emphasize somewhat different mechanisms. Notice that the group-value model maintains that justice is based on a fear of exclusion from a desirable social group, as well as worries about exploitation from powerful decision makers. Social exchange theory, however, is based on a sense of obligation and a desire to help the other party.

Deontic Justice

An interesting feature of both the economic approach and the group-value model is the assumption that justice ultimately reduces to self-interest; it is less clear whether the control model and social exchange theory make this same assumption. For clar-ity, we define a self-interested concern as one based on achieving a personal benefit or benefits. These benefits may be financial (as in the case of the economic self-interest model) or social (as in the case of the group-value and relational models). The deontic model of justice breaks with this tradition by proposing that justice matters for its own sake. This approach emphasizes the importance that at least some people tend to place on their moral duty to do the right thing.

The deontic model is unique in proposing that individuals care about justice even when there are no concerns with financial gain and group status, and there is evidence for this. For example, studies suggest that individuals will forgo money to punish an act of injustice. Research has also shown that participants will sometimes sacrifice earnings even without material benefits for doing so and when it is unlikely that the participants identify with the relevant social group. Findings such as these suggest that neither economic gain nor social standing provides a full account of organizational justice. Research on deontic justice is important for another reason as well. By emphasizing moral duty, it builds bridges between empirical work on fair perceptions and normative work on business ethics.


As illustrated, organizational justice refers to perceptions of fairness in terms of outcomes, processes, and interactions. Research to date has concerned itself with identifying antecedents that influence these perceptions and the resulting attitudes and behaviors once these judgments have been made. However, it is important to keep in mind that these perceptions are subject to change, especially with a change in the referent, the standard, by which fairness is assessed. Considering what each possible framework has to offer can develop a more complete sense of the dynamics involved in any study of organizational justice and its effects.


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