Workplace Fairness is Crucial for Powerful Supervisors

diverse group of female employees walking
Topic(s): fairness, leadership, trust
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2010)
Article: The Role of Authority Power in Explaining Procedural Fairness Effects
Authors: M. van Dijke, D. De Cremer, D.M. Mayer
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Of course it always pays to be fair to your employees, right? Not always, suggests new research (van Dijke, De Cremer, & Mayer, 2010). The authors explain that there are distinct advantages to treating people fairly, but only if the supervisor possesses a high level of power. If the supervisor possesses low power, it may not actually matter. 


When a supervisor makes decisions that seem fair, he or she will be seen as more trustworthy. When that happens, employees will view the supervisor as more charismatic and as a more legitimate authority. The employees will also be more motivated to engage in organizational citizenship behavior (OCBs), which is when employees use extra effort to accomplish organizational goals. But here’s the catch: this only applies to supervisors who seem powerful.

Employees who feel they are treated unfairly might wonder if the supervisor could have done anything different. When the supervisor appears to be powerful, the answer is invariably yes. If that happens, employees will be less likely to trust the unfair supervisor who may seem exploitive and self-serving. But if the supervisor does not appear powerful, employees may think the supervisor is merely following orders and therefore not to blame. In that case, they may trust the supervisor regardless of whether he or she seems fair.


The authors explain several important implications of this study. First, power is not as bad as commonly portrayed. Power can be used to help encourage organizational citizenship behavior, which will only decrease in response to unfairness. Second, high power equals high stakes and high accountability. Challenging conventional wisdom, this study suggests that people in powerful positions cannot do as they please, and are held to a higher standard.

On the other hand, supervisors who have relatively low power are not held to a high standard and have greater freedom. Still, the researchers caution that low power supervisors should not take this as invitation to do as they please. Low power supervisors may not receive as much feedback on the perceived fairness of their decisions and may not realize they are being unfair. When job applicants or clients who are not familiar with the company mistake them for high power leaders, they will be ill-equipped to meet the higher standards expected of them.

Van Dijke, M., De Cremer, D., Mayer, D.M. (2010). The Role of Authority Power in Explaining Procedural Fairness Effects. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(3), 488-502.