Motivating Your Employees With Fairness

Ensuring that your employees feel fairly treated is a critical, but often difficult, task for managers.

“Managers are often motivated to treat employees fairly because of the perceived significant, beneficial outcomes, such as better performance and lower turnover,” explains Dr. Laurie Barclay, associate professor and area coordinator of Organizational Behaviour/Human Resources Management at the Lazaridis School. “But even when managers have the best intentions in mind, and have a high desire to engage in fair behaviours, they may not always be acting in a fair way. To rectify this we need to understand how to motivate employees from a fairness perspective.”

Research has identified four dimensions of fairness that managers can use for motivating employees. These are:

  1. Distributive Justice – the fairness of outcomes (e.g., promotions and pay)
  2. Procedural Justice – the fairness of the process through which decisions get made (e.g., with the opportunity for voice, procedures that are applied consistently and without bias)
  3. Interpersonal Justice – the degree to which employees are treated with dignity and respect
  4. Informational Justice – the adequate and timely explanation of decisions, with an emphasis on the open and honest sharing of information

“Managers often think employees care most about distributive justice, and focus their fairness efforts there,” Laurie explains. “But in reality, ensuring that the procedures are implemented fairly and that employees feel respected is critical to reap the positive outcomes of fairness. By focusing their efforts here, managers may find their employees feeling more valued and heard, and this starts a positive cycle.”

More specifically, managers who take the time to ensure that their employees feel respected and share explanations that are tailored to the needs of the employee will build trust, which makes managing fairness easier in the long run.

“This way of motivating employees does take time,” Laurie admits. “But once trust and communication are established, motivation increases and the results of better performance and lower turnover are realized.”

Further, when employees are disappointed with their outcomes, having fair procedures and interpersonal treatment can diminish the sting, which can buffer negative reactions, like retaliation.

Managers who take the time to treat their employees fairly not only receive higher performance and commitment, they also avoid the costs of unfair treatment, including turnover, retaliation, and higher costs due to absences and health-related ailments.