How Do Employees Respond to Unfair Treatment?

Topic(s): citizenship behavior, organizational justice, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)

Article: Examining Retaliatory Responses to Justice Violations and Recovery
Attempts in Teams

Authors: J.S. Christian, M.S. Christian, A.S. Garza, A.P.J. Ellis
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

New research (Christian, et al., 2012) shows that treating employees unfairly can lead to certain negative workplace outcomes. The authors conducted an experiment with teams of simulated employees and found that employees who are treated unfairly respond in two harmful ways. The first is that these employees engage in fewer organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs). This refers to things that an employee might do to help out at work, but are not technically considered part of the employee’s job. The second thing that employees do in response to unfair treatment is give supervisors lower performance ratings.

RESPONDING TO UNFAIR TREATMENT OF A TEAMMATE

Retaliatory employee behavior may not be limited to the individuals
who were treated unfairly. The authors found that entire teams of employees banded
together and performed fewer OCBs as a response to a teammate’s unfair treatment.
When teammates perceive that someone is getting treated unfairly, they may have an
emotional response of moral outrage that moves them to supportive action.

Another interesting discovery is that these findings do not work equally for all people.
The authors describe “strategic core” employees, or employees whose work is
instrumental for team success, and who encounter more problems and a heavier
workload
than the typical employee. When these employees are treated unfairly,
they respond with even fewer OCBs than ordinary employees would under similar
circumstances. Also, teams more drastically reduced their OCBs when a strategic core
employee was wronged.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This research shows the importance of treating employees fairly. But what can
managers do if they have already behaved unfairly toward an employee? Luckily
this study provides a solution. “Recovery” is an attempt to atone for past injustice
by correcting the injustice or showing genuine remorse. Recovery was successful
at raising levels of OCBs as well as improving subsequent performance ratings of
managers. In this situation, the wronged employee’s teammates also increased OCBs
and managerial performance ratings. In other words, don’t underestimate the power of
simply saying “I’m sorry.”

 

Christian, J.S., Christian, M.S., Garza, A.S., & Ellis, A.P.J. (2012). Examining retaliatory
responses to justice violations and recovery attempts in teams. Journal of Applied
Psychology, 97(6), 1218-1232.