Does fairness matter to the success of organizational change efforts?

A version of this article was originally published at ScienceforWork.com

“But, is it fair?”

If you aren’t asking this question when designing your approach for implementing an organizational change — a new policy, system, program, practice —you may want to start. Research on fairness in organizations, sometimes called justice, helps us to understand why.

The four faces of fairness

When thinking about fairness during organizational change, it can be helpful to understand that we demonstrate fairness, and people perceive it, in multiple ways. Research supports the idea that fairness takes a variety of forms; the types are often described as:

  1. Distributive: Are the outcomes or results of the decision fair?

  2. Procedural: Is the decision-making process fair?

  3. Interpersonal: Are people treated fairly during the process (e.g., with politeness, dignity, and respect)?

  4. Informational: Are explanations offered about why and how decisions were made?


Does fairness matter?       

In addition to moral or ethical reasons for seeking fairness during an organizational change, you may also want to add effectiveness to your argument. While the research we reviewed does not support causal conclusions, it does indicate that there is a noticeable relationship between different types of fairness and a variety of organizational outcomes.

In general contexts, distributive and procedural fairness are consistently found to have moderate or strong links with a broad variety of outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, trust, and work performance. Both distributive and procedural fairness have also been linked with change commitment.

The research we reviewed indicates that procedural fairness is the strongest predictor of many outcomes, and particularly stands out in relation to work performance. Distributive fairness appears to be a better predictor of satisfaction with the results or consequences of a decision, which isn’t too surprising.

 
 


Does this mean we don’t need to worry about the other types of fairness? Not necessarily.

Other types of fairness, such as interpersonal and informational, have been linked with employees’ satisfaction with their supervisor and organizational citizenship behaviors, as well as employees’ commitment to an organizational change.

Additionally, research specific to organizational change suggests that when designing a change strategy, it may be wise to consider the interplay of multiple types of fairness. Let’s look at how that might work.

When unpopular changes are made, a fair process may help — particularly when explained to those who are impacted

Perhaps you’ve heard about the “fair process effect,” which suggests that people may be more willing to accept unfavorable or unpopular decisions (a lack of distributive fairness) when they perceive that the decision was made fairly (procedural fairness). For instance, imagine during a new system rollout, you’ve decided to prioritize functionality for two end-user groups, leaving a third group’s requests unfilled. The fair process effect proposes that end users may be more willing to accept this “unfavorable outcome” if they feel the decision-making process was fair.

This doesn’t mean fairness in outcomes doesn’t matter. As discussed above, distributive fairness is linked to things like job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and trust. Instead, it suggests that when faced with constraints that lessen distributive fairness, a fair process may become even more important.

 
 

It also doesn’t mean achieving procedural fairness is a breeze. Procedures or processes are said to be “fair” when they are: consistent, bias-free, accurate, correctable, ethical, and open to stakeholder input. Building such a process takes time and concerted effort.

Finally, some organizational change research reminds us that if we take pains to develop a fair process, we should probably let people know! These studies suggest that providing a meaningful and sincere explanation to staff about why and how a change decision was made is also worth considering (interpersonal/ informational justice). For example, an experiment conducted during a year-long pay freeze found an increase in intention to leave the organization, lack of commitment, and job dissatisfaction among employees who did not receive an explanation, but not among those who did receive an explanation.  

Some managers may be reluctant to provide explanations (informational fairness) or feel unsure about how to interact with staff during difficult changes (interpersonal fairness). Thus, building greater awareness among managers of their role in exhibiting fairness and equipping them with related skills may be a worthwhile addition to your change strategy.

Integrating Fairness into Your Change Approach

It may seem impossible to ensure fairness in all aspects of an organizational change. However, understanding the various ways you can demonstrate fairness, and how they link to outcomes, can help you make informed choices when faced with constraints. Some practical ways to integrate fairness into your change management approach include:

  • Consider your context: Survey staff before the change to identify their questions or areas of concern, which may help you to tailor your change plan to current circumstances.

  • Make trade-offs mindfully: Review your change approach using the four types of fairness as a lens — where might perceived or actual fairness be low (or high)? Was this intentional? Is it avoidable? If not, how can it be mitigated?

  • Don’t assume; communicate! Explain the reasoning behind and process used to make change decisions. Use input from a pre-change survey to identify what information is important and meaningful to employees.

  • Follow the golden rule: Educate managers about the potential significance of their interactions with staff during times of change — offer support to those who may feel intimidated by, or underprepared to navigate, difficult conversations or emotions that may arise.


References

General Organizational Context

Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 86(2), 278-321.

Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: a meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of applied psychology, 86(3), 425.

Van den Bos, K. (2005). What is responsible for the fair process effect. Handbook of organizational justice, 273, 300.

Viswesvaran, C., & Ones, D. S. (2002). Examining the construct of organizational justice: A meta-analytic evaluation of relations with work attitudes and behaviorsJournal of Business Ethics38(3), 193-203.


Change-specific Studies

Bernerth, J. B., Armenakis, A. A., Feild, H. S., & Walker, H. J. (2007). Justice, cynicism, and commitment: A study of important organizational change variables. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 43(3), 303-326.

Daly, J. P., & Geyer, P. D. (1994). The role of fairness in implementing large‐scale change: Employee evaluations of process and outcome in seven facility relocations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15(7), 623-638.

Kernan, M. C., & Hanges, P. J. (2002). Survivor reactions to reorganization: Antecedents and consequences of procedural, interpersonal, and informational justice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(5), 916–928.


Jack Walker, H., Armenakis, A. A., & Bernerth, J. B. (2007). Factors influencing organizational change efforts: An integrative investigation of change content, context, process and individual differences. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 20(6), 761-773.

Melkonian, T., Monin, P., & Noorderhaven, N. G. (2011). Distributive justice, procedural justice, exemplarity, and employees' willingness to cooperate in M&A integration processes: An analysis of the Air France‐KLM merger. Human Resource Management, 50(6), 809-837.

Rodell, J. B., & Colquitt, J. A. (2009). Looking ahead in times of uncertainty: The role of anticipatory justice in an organizational change context. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(4), 989.

Schaubroeck, J., May, D. R., & Brown, F. W. (1994). Procedural justice explanations and employee reactions to economic hardship: A field experiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(3), 455.

Stouten, J., Rousseau, D. M., & De Cremer, D. (2018). Successful Organizational Change: Integrating the Management Practice and Scholarly Literatures. Academy of Management Annals, 12(2), 752-788.
ten Have, S., ten Have, W., Huijsmans, A. B., & Otto, M. (2016). Reconsidering change management: Applying evidence-based insights in change management practice. Routledge.