The Dark Side of Procedural Justice: When Fairness Is Not Enough

A common belief in the workplace is that if managers make decisions in a fair way (this is called procedural justice), then employees will be happier and organizational outcomes will be positive. Both the research literature and common sense indicate that managers should be fair, but a recent study (Khan, Quratulain, & Bell, 2014) suggests that being fair may not be enough. It appears that fairness does not always lead to good behavior by employees.


We have all experienced envy at some point. Have you ever looked at a friend’s Facebook pictures from an amazing vacation and felt at least a little bit envious? Have you ever seen someone else get an incredible job that you wish you had? Your envy may be fleeting and you may not do anything about it, but a lot of people do not react that way. Envy in the workplace has previously been linked to counterproductive work behavior (CWB), like backstabbing or sabotaging the envied person. These CWBs can make the envious person feel more empowered, help them release their negative emotions, and can possibly even lead to beneficial outcomes for the envious person (for example, the rival might fail because of something that the envious person did).


Procedural justice is when employees perceive that the processes that lead to important outcomes are fair and just. For example, the process of how a manager gives raises will be seen as unfair if he only gives raises to his friends. We tend to think of fairness as always being a good thing. However, if someone else receives a good outcome (for example, a promotion) and you think the process was unfair, you can easily blame someone else. If the process appears to be fair, then it is pretty hard to blame anyone but yourself for missing out.


In this study, the researchers surveyed employees from 16 organizations and found that higher levels of workplace envy were associated with higher levels of counter-productive work behavior. This relationship was stronger when employees thought that there were higher levels of procedural justice, and attributing blame (internal vs. external blame) appeared to be the reason why. For example, if Jennifer perceives a process to be fair and Chuy gets a positive outcome, then Jennifer is more likely to be envious, make negative self-attributions, and act out in a counterproductive way.


Despite the potential for counter-productive work behavior, managers should always strive to be fair. However, the possible negative effects of fairness may be lessened if managers support their employees’ self-esteem and strive to reduce envy. The authors encourage managers to support their employees and help them find productive ways to improve workplace outcomes.


Khan, A. K., Quratulain, S. & Bell, C. M. (2014). Episodic envy and counterproductive work behaviors: Is more justice always good? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(1), 128-144.