Unfair Treatment Can Reduce Organizational Citizenship Behavior

Topic(s): citizenship behavior, organizational justice
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

Although many managers are concerned about employee dignity and well-being, others are only concerned with bottom-line organizational effectiveness, profit, and ruthless getting-ahead in life. For these types, new research (Christian, et al., 2012) has shown 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.

But worse than that, these retaliatory behaviors may not be confined 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.


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.