The Effects of Workplace Injustice on Bystanders

Any time an employee is a victim of mistreatment, there are a myriad of individuals who can become aware, including friends, co-workers, and even strangers. And when it comes to justice in the workplace, even employees who are not directly mistreated can become motivated to inflict retribution. This can happen even if they are completely unaffected by the event. Why? The deontic model of justice proposes that when people become aware of the mistreatment of others, they can experience very real and sometimes strong negative emotions. It is proposed that this reaction is due to the violation of social and moral “norms” of behavior.

A recent study (Skarlicki & Rupp, 2010) explored factors that could affect this tendency for third-parties to go beyond moral objection and instead carry out justice and retribution on behalf of a mistreated coworker. They found that third-party employees who process the event on an emotional, “gut” level are more likely to react to an injustice than their rational counterparts. However, if people have strong moral identities (i.e. they see themselves as highly moral, kind, honest, etc.), they are more likely to react, regardless of whether they are intuitive or logical.


First, the researchers examined if the use of a particular “processing frame” over another would influence a third-party’s reaction to injustice. Processing frames are essentially ways to process information and can include experiential processing and rational processing. Experiential processing happens at a more subconscious level, and includes people’s emotional and “gut” responses as information on which to base future behavior. Rational processing happens in the more conscious, or deliberative part of the mind. It involves the use of logic and the weighing of evidence to make decisions and guide behavior. The researchers found that people who were primed to be open to their intuition and feelings were much more likely to seek retribution against someone who mistreated another person (a fictional stranger in this case) than those primed to think rationally and analytically.

The authors also measured the extent to which individual moral identity interacted with this process. Moral identity reflects the extent to which moral characteristics (e.g., kindness, compassion, honesty, integrity) are central to the way people view themselves. People with high moral identities tend to focus more on morally relevant issues and are guided more by moral standards than external cues. In relation to this study, the authors found that high moral identifiers were more likely to seek retribution, regardless of the processing frame. High moral identifiers were theorized to be more sensitive to the mistreatment of others because it violated their strong moral values, and were therefore more apt to retaliate.


In organizations, unfairness occurs frequently (despite the best efforts of leadership) and there are a great number of third parties ready to wave the banner of retribution. Managers should be aware of this and seek to create a culture of fairness if they wish to avoid a potentially vicious cycle. If managers are interested in reducing retributive behavior, they can try to activate rational processing by bringing attention to facts or encouraging employees to think things through. The opposite is also true; if leaders want to see more retribution, they can support experiential processing by drawing attention to the visceral and emotional aspect of injustice. However, this study also showed that not everyone will be so swayed.


Skarlicki, D. P., & Rupp, D. E. (2010). Dual processing and organizational justice: The role of rational versus experiential processing in third-party reactions to workplace mistreatment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 944-952.