Organizational Justice: Do Employees Give the Benefit of the Doubt?

When employees perceive organizational justice, meaning they believe their company is being fair to them, positive outcomes are likely to occur. Yet little research has examined how employees form opinions about whether or not their company is just.

In some situations, it’s quite straightforward. Let’s say that an employee was denied a raise, but the manager also clearly explained the plentiful reasons for why it could not happen. The employee therefore has the requisite background information needed to determine if the manager and organization were being fair.

But let’s take that same scenario, and imagine that the employee was denied a raise without any explanation. The employee doesn’t have enough information to determine if the organization is really being fair. What will the employee do in such a case? Recent research (Qin, Ren, Zhang, & Johnson, 2015) has shown that when employees experience ambiguity or lack of information that prevents them from assessing a certain “type” of justice, they simply substitute how they already evaluate the organization on a different “type” of organizational justice.


This research studied three types of organizational justice. The first is distributive justice and concerns the allocation of resources, the second type is procedural justice and concerns the process used to determine resource allocation, and the third is interactional justice and concerns the fairness of interpersonal communication. These three justice types can occur in different amounts within the same organization. For example, one company may make unfair compensation decisions (poor distributive justice), but make sure that the bad news is always professionally and sympathetically delivered (good interactional justice).


Because the three justice types are completely separate factors, what happens when employees don’t have enough information to assess all factors, but instead only have enough information to assess one or two factors? In this study, the researchers discovered that the quality of justice that the employee can determine, will influence the employee’s evaluation about the type of justice that is unclear.

Let’s give an example of the above: Sarah has a lot of information on interactional justice because she speaks with her boss every day. During these conversations, her boss is always polite, friendly, and respectful, so Sarah gives her organization a high mark on interactional justice. On the other hand, Sarah is relatively new to the organization and she also doesn’t gossip much. Therefore, she does not have much information about who gets organizational resources, or how the organization decides on who gets them. Sarah cannot easily evaluate the organization on distributive justice and procedural justice. In this case, Sarah will assume that because the organization offers high levels of interactional justice, they must also have high levels of the other two justice types.


These findings were replicated in several studies using different samples of people, and the findings were even more pronounced when employees had a high need for “cognitive closure.” This refers to people who are less comfortable with ambiguity. Back to our story of Sarah, if she is the kind of person who needs closure and needs to arrive at decisions quickly, she will be more likely to borrow her opinion about a different justice type and apply it to all types of organizational justice. On the other hand, if Sarah does not need cognitive closure, perhaps she will hold out on forming an opinion until she is with the organization for a longer period of time and has the opportunity to collect more information.


This study shows that employees who have little information about one or more types of organization justice will borrow their opinion about a type of organizational justice that is clear to them. This means, say the authors, that organizations can achieve high marks on all types of organizational justice by focusing on ensuring that at least one type of organizational justice is well-accounted for.

The authors note that this doesn’t mean that organization can get away with being unjust in some regards; eventually employees will figure out this ruse and reassess their evaluation. However, in certain situations, organizations may not be able to provide employees with adequate information on, for example, the complex reasons for resource allocation. In order to gain the benefit of the doubt from employees, this organization can work hard on a different type of justice. For example, they might make sure interactional justice (based on interpersonal relationships) is clearly noticeable to employees and also very good.


Qin, X., Ren, R., Zhang, Z.-X., & Johnson, R. E. (2015). Fairness heuristics and substitutability effects: Inferring the fairness of outcomes, procedures, and interpersonal treatment when employees lack clear information. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 749-766.