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When Justice Promotes Injustice

September 9, 2016

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (718) 398-7642,

Minority managers reap no gains by treating subordinates respectfully, new research finds

A management principle all but taken for granted is that interpersonal justice pays – that is, it is to leaders’ advantage to treat workers with dignity and respect. As a new scholarly paper notes at the outset, such treatment is presumed to be not only good for subordinates but also of benefit to supervisors through "stronger employee task performance and more helping behavior."

The paper in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal then goes on to conclude disturbingly that, while this adage is true enough for supervisors who are white, it does not hold for those who are Black or Hispanic. They are found to receive no enhancement in subordinates’ opinion of their fairness – or of subordinates’ good will or loyalty – by treating them politely.

In the words of the study, by Cindy P. Zapata of Texas A&M University, Andrew M. Carton of the University of Pennsylvania, and Joseph T. Liu of California State University Chico, although "interpersonal justice is presumed to have only positive consequences...we suggest – somewhat paradoxically – that subordinates with minority supervisors perceive less fairness than subordinates of Caucasian supervisors only when supervisors adhere to interpersonal justice rules." By the same token, "minority supervisors are not perceived as less fair than Caucasian supervisors when interpersonal justice rules are violated by supervisors of both races."

How could this be? According to the new research, "Members of stigmatized groups may unknowingly set themselves up to be the target of stereotyping when they treat others with respect...One stereotype appears particularly relevant: the belief that stigmatized minorities are more deceitful than Caucasians."

As the professors explain, "When supervisors act rudely or disrespectfully, the recipients of such treatment are likely to assume that supervisors genuinely feel derision toward them, as there is little to be gained socially by acting disrespectfully toward others when such feelings are not sincere. In contrast, supervisors who treat subordinates graciously may have ulterior motives...given that individuals in work settings are known to sometimes mask their true feelings when their roles call for constant displays of respect for others."

Moreover, suspicions of minority deceit run deep, as other research has found – for example, one study that revealed deceitfulness "to be closely entwined with the identify of Mexican-Americans," with African-Americans viewed as the second most deceitful group.

As to why these stereotypes come into play when minority supervisors act courteously to workers but not when they are rude or disrespectful, the authors reason that "when supervisors breach interpersonal justice rules, subordinates naturally perceive a threat to their welfare. This causes them to devote more attention to the process of understanding their supervisors' intentions and motives...rather than forming an impression based on the supervisor's membership in a social group...This shifting between application and inhibition [of a stereotype] is typically done rapidly and subconsciously."

In short, although subordinates will likely resent supervisors of whatever race who treat them with disrespect, deep-seated biases lead them to withhold credit from – and even undermine – minorities who eschew such treatment. Thus the paper’s title: “When Justice Promotes Injustice.”

Findings are based on a field study reinforced by a controlled experiment in a laboratory.

The field study involved surveys of 165 employees from diverse industries (for example, banking, engineering, and health care) who were recruited with the help of business-school students and who participated in the research along with their immediate supervisors. Subordinates, 50% female, averaged 38 years of age, while supervisors, 41% female, averaged 45 years. Although only 16 of the supervisors were Black or Hispanic, the survey's main results emerged clearly enough to be statistically significant.

Employees and bosses alike were asked to what extent (on a scale of 1/To a Very Small Extent to 5/To a Very Large Extent) supervisors treated subordinates with respect and propriety. Subordinates were surveyed (on a scale of 1 to 5) as to supervisors' level of fairness. The finding: "Subordinates with minority supervisors perceived less fairness than subordinates with Caucasian supervisors when supervisors adhered to interpersonal justice rules but not when they violated them...Even when subordinates perceive that minority supervisors adhere to interpersonal justice rules to the same degree as...Caucasian supervisors...minority supervisors are still rated as less fair...and, in turn, their subordinates are less willing to go above and beyond for them."

In the laboratory experiment, 296 undergraduate business students were asked to perform anagrams that were supposedly graded by students from another university with whom they communicated by computer. The supervisory students, who actually didn't exist, were divided about equally between those with the Caucasian-sounding names of Todd and John and those with the minority-sounding names of Tyrone and Juan (participants largely guessed their ethnicity). The single communication from supervisors to participants was either respectful ("I want you to know that I'm taking my job of grading your anagrams seriously") or rude ("My job as a leader is tougher than solving these easy anagrams. Your potential bonus is the last thing on my mind").

Findings replicate those of the field study, while also supporting the professors’ hypotheses 1) that the stereotype of minority deceitfulness plays a key role in the results and 2) that respectful minority supervisors not only miss out on extra efforts from subordinates that white bosses enjoy but are more likely to be undermined by those subordinates.

What to do? Unsurprisingly, the professors immediately rule out violating employees' expectations of interpersonal justice and go to the root cause of the problem – individuality being overshadowed by stereotype. Reasoning that this is less likely to happen in smaller than larger units, they test this with data from the field study and find that "interpersonal rule adherence led subordinates to perceive minority supervisors as less fair than Caucasian leaders in large work units (about 30 members) but not in small work units (about two members)."

But what to do when assigning few direct reports to minority supervisors is not desired or possible? "Other modifications can help increase the salience of a direct report's supervisor," the professors write. "For instance, supervisors can be physically located more proximally to subordinates...[In addition,] frequent interaction gleaned from one-on-one meetings or small group caucuses may make supervisor characteristics more apparent. As another alternative, routines that lead to relationship building...for example, after-hours social activities or outings that involve partners and family members may allow subordinates to see their supervisors in a different light."

In a final suggestion, they urge “that the design of the survey instruments used within organizations to assess supervisor fairness be reconsidered…Our data indicate that, when employees are asked to make assessments of overall fairness, employees who have supervisors from one race make judgments in ways that are inconsistent with employees who have supervisors from another race. We therefore suggest that company surveys include questions that tap into specific justice behaviors rather than, or in addition to, asking employees to make high-level overarching assessments about the fairness of their supervisors.”

The paper, “When Justice Promotes Injustice: Why Minority Leaders Experience Bias When They Adhere to Interpersonal Justice Rules," is in the August/September issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with almost 20,000 members in 127 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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