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When it comes to organizational fairness, many workers don't much care, study suggests

November 1, 2007

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

It has been described as the glue that holds organizations together -- justice, the elementary fairness that in free societies is basic to people's working together effectively. Workers of all stripes, it is widely believed, assign a high priority to being treated fairly and respond positively to organizations that do so.

Now new research suggests that in many instances this is not the case. A report in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal finds that workers with low self-esteem tend to regard organizational justice with indifference.

Low self-esteem may characterize as many as 20 or 30 percent of employees, according to a co-author of the report, William B. Swann Jr., a professor of psychology and management at the University of Texas, Austin, who carried out the research with Batia M. Wiesenfeld of New York University, Joel Brockner of Columbia University, and Caroline A. Bartel of the University of Texas, Austin.

In sum, the professors "found a positive relationship between procedural justice and organizational commitment among people with high self-esteem but not among people with low self-esteem." Such a finding, they conclude, "suggests a challenge to the generality of one of society's bedrock assumptions: When it comes to justice, more is always better."

Comments Prof. Wiesenfeld: "At a time when layoffs and radical restructurings have become a way of life for many firms, our findings should serve as a warning: important and valuable though organizational justice may be, companies should not overestimate its ability to foster workers' trust and loyalty. Our studies of organizations in flux, as reported in this paper, suggest that procedural justice may not be as strong a glue as many companies count on it to be."

The paper breaks significant new ground in applying to organizational justice the insights of a large body of research into a psychological phenomenon called self-verification.

Self-verification theory contends that, once people form their self-views, they strive mightily to verify and preserve them. While this seems natural enough for self-views that are positive, what once made the theory highly controversial is that it posits self-verification to apply equally to negative self-views.

In other words, the theory holds that people seek verification from others not only about their strengths but about their flaws, a quest that leads them to favor people -- whether as wives or roommates or bosses -- who confirm those flaws, even if unpleasantly.

A leading figure in the development of self-verification theory, Prof. Swann recalls the disbelief that greeted early experiments of his in which subjects with negative self-views evinced a clear preference for being evaluated as unhappy, unconfident, and anxious over being viewed as happy, self-confident and well-adjusted.

"People said our findings were mistaken and wouldn't be replicated," he recalls. "But 17 replications later it was clear that the tendency of persons to favor self-verifying evaluations was robust, even if their self-views happened to be negative."

The research in the current Academy of Management Journal seeks to determine whether this phenomenon may lead people to dismiss a feature of worklife that is universally lauded -- namely, fairness. If fair treatment of employees implies high regard for them, one can reason that it will not be welcomed by people with low self-esteem. Some earlier research suggested as much, but the findings were unclear.

Profs. Wiesenfeld, Swann and their co-authors sought to answer the question through a number of subsidiary studies.

Two studies consisted of surveys of employees of companies (33 employees of a telecommunications firm and 179 workers at a utility), that were either in the midst of or had recently completed reorganizations and downsizings. In both companies, workers with high self-esteem tended to express significantly greater commitment to the company when they perceived the restructurings as fair than when they saw them as unjust. In contrast, workers low in self-esteem tended to express about the same level of company commitment whether they thought the restructurings were handled fairly or not.

Another subsidiary study involved a survey of 608 employees of a public hospital undergoing a major cost-cutting initiative that entailed closing or consolidating units and substantially reducing work hours. Among employees with high self-esteem, those who said the initiative was carried out fairly had significantly less absenteeism in the 10 months following the survey than those who felt that it was handled unfairly. For employees with low self-esteem, absenteeism was not significantly lower among those who credited the hospital with fairness than among those who gave it low marks in that regard.

In still another subsidiary study, a survey of 129 part-time business students whose companies had recently imposed layoffs revealed that survivors were highly sensitive about organizational justice when they anticipated a future with their company and also had high-self esteem. Among workers with low self-esteem, however, procedural justice had little effect on organizational commitment, even if they anticipated a future with their firms.

In conclusion, the professors urge managers to go beyond "the blanket application of procedural justice as a commitment-building strategy" by "communicating to workers that they are known and understood."

As Prof. Wiesenfeld puts it: "Whatever the level of their self-esteem, workers want the organization to see them as they are. The ability to do so transcends procedural justice as a means of building what matters most to companies nowadays, an engaged and committed workforce."

Several earlier studies, she adds, have suggested the considerable gains organizations can realize through worker self-verification.

For example, research by Prof. Swann and others has revealed that it is through self-verification that work groups get the most value out of diversity. As explained in a 2004 article in the Academy of Management Review, "[W]hen group members had their unique attributes and perspectives verified, they felt recognized and understood. Such feelings emboldened them to offer creative ideas and insights they might otherwise have felt too inhibited to share."

As a result, the 2004 article continued, "among groups that achieved high levels of self-verification, diversity facilitated performance. In contrast, among groups that failed to achieve substantial self-verification, diversity undermined performance."

The new study, entitled "Is More Fairness Always Preferred? Self-Esteem Moderates Reactions to Procedural Justice," is in the October/November issue of the Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication, now in its 50th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with more than 17,000 members in 102 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
The Washington Post. The Christmastime Self-Esteem Paradox. (Monday, December 10, 2007).
U.S. News & World Report. What's Fair in Work and War. (Monday, December 10, 2007).
United Press International. Study: Corporate Fairness Means Little to Some. (Monday, November 19, 2007).

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