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Justice and fairness in the
workplace: a trajectory for
Received 29 November 2016
Revised 5 June 2017
Accepted 17 July 2017
Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology,
Department of Management, Swinburne University of Technology,
Swinburne Business School, Swinburne University of Technology,
Melbourne, Australia, and
Department of Sociology, Swinburne University of Technology,
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to argue that diversity management (DM) interventions, underpinned
by principles of justice and fairness, create a powerful force that drives sustainable outcomes. Further, the
authors argue that justice and fairness should be embedded at the core of DM.
Design/methodology/approach – A qualitative case study methodology was used to ascertain how four
organizations approached critical issues regarding diversity. Justice and fairness principles were used as a
framework to evaluate each organization’s DM interventions. Different approaches adopted by the case study
organizations were compared using a cross-case analysis.
Findings – Justice and fairness principles provide a useful framework to evaluate DM interventions.
The findings show that justice and fairness principles have an effect across the continuum of DM, including
identifying dimensions of diversity, executing DM programs and realizing outcomes of DM.
Research limitations/implications – The current study is limited to four case studies using
Practical implications – The findings demonstrate the importance of integrating justice and fairness
benchmarks when implementing DM programs.
Originality/value – The findings shed light on the link between DM and justice and fairness, an area
lacking empirical studies. It also presents a new area for empirical enquiry—the application of social justice
principles in evaluating organizational interventions in DM.
Keywords Social justice, Diversity management, Organizational justice, Equality, Business case,
Paper type Research paper
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion:
An International Journal
Vol. 37 No. 5, 2018
© Emerald Publishing Limited
Organizational justice research has proliferated during the past several decades (Greenberg
and Colquitt, 2013). Similarly, given the heterogeneity of the contemporary workforce, there
is a rich body of research in diversity management (DM). However, while each of the two
streams of research has continued to grow, there seems little interconnectedness between
the two (Choi and Rainey, 2014). In the absence of empirical research, examining
organizational interventions aimed at managing workforce diversity within a justice and
fairness framework, the integration of justice and fairness and DM remains a matter of
conjecture. Our research aims to help address this gap by investigating the association
between DM practices and principles of justice and fairness in four Australian
organizations. In this context, we pose the question:
RQ1. How does justice and fairness integrate with the phenomenon of DM in
The research is guided by a conceptual framework derived from justice and fairness
literature, which suggests that justice and fairness should be integral determinants of DM.
In line with Choi and Rainey (2014), we argue that a managerial approach embedding justice
and fairness would enable organizations to build the required culture and climate to
effectively manage workforce diversity.
We begin with an overview of the organizational justice literature, followed by a review
of justice and fairness and DM literature. The research methodology is then articulated,
followed by the findings. Finally, we present the conclusion and implications of our study.
Justice and fairness in the workplace
The term “organizational justice” was coined by Greenberg (1987) (Colquitt, 2001; Tan,
2014), who considered theories of justice through which organizational phenomena could be
examined. Organizational justice is a strong enabler, motivating employees to achieve
organizational goals, through the establishment of conducive employee-employer
relationships (Greenberg and Colquitt, 2013). According to Greenberg (1987),
organizational justice is the employee’s perception of being treated fairly. Such
perceptions impact employee attitudes and behaviors and are manifested through
organizational commitment, trust and satisfaction (Tan, 2014). Tan (2014) argued that
fairness in organizational policies, payments and benefits is relevant to organizational
justice. For Al-Zu’bi (2010), organizational justice is a term relevant to the work environment
where the role of justice in the workplace is upheld. Cugueró-Escofet and Fortin (2014) noted
that the terms justice and fairness are used interchangeably in most organizational justice
research. Four categories of workplace justice and fairness exist under the umbrella term
“organizational justice”: fairness of outcomes (distributive justice); procedures (procedural
justice); interpersonal treatment (interpersonal justice); and information (informational
justice) (Cugueró-Escofet and Fortin, 2014).
Distributive justice (the fair distribution of outcomes) is consistent with the principles of
equity or equality (Colquitt, 2001; Rifai, 2005). For Tan (2014), distributive justice concerns
perceptions of fair distribution of gains in accordance with the value of the contribution made
by employees. For Al-Zu’bi (2010), it is the perceived fairness of the outcome an employee gets
from the organization. Procedural justice, however, concerns the justice or fairness of the
processes that lead to outcomes (Leventhal, 1980), and how employees perceive the fairness of
rules and procedures used in a process (Nabatchi et al., 2007). Here, the emphasis is on process
rather than outcome, informed by the procedural emphasis in the legal system (Colquitt, 2001).
Consequently, the term “interactional justice” arose, with fairness defined by the quality of
interpersonal treatment in implementing organizational procedures (Bies and Moag, 1986).
Interactional justice emphasizes treating employees with dignity, sensitivity and respect
(Al-Zu’bi, 2010), with clear rationales for decisions (Colquitt, 2001). Mikula et al. (1990)
suggested that perceived injustices are not restricted to distributional or procedural issues, but
are largely impacted by the way employees are treated during interactions and encounters.
Interactional justice was subsequently divided into two categories: the respect and sensitivity
aspects of interactional justice comprise the interpersonal facet of distributive justice
(Greenberg, 1993); the explanation of the rationale of interactional justice comprises the
interpersonal facet of procedural justice (Colquitt, 2001). Despite lack of consensus regarding
that division (Al-Zu’bi, 2010), researchers including Colquitt (2001) recognize it and adopt a
four-structure approach to organizational justice.
fairness in the
A conceptual framework for applying justice and fairness principles in the
Cohen (2010) argued that principles of justice are germane to economic activity, imposing
obligations upon managers, and reiterated that “if citizens’ interests aren’t protected, then
society—not just business but society as a whole—can’t be fair” (2010, p. 563). Newbert and
Stouder (2011) advocated for the creative application of theories of justice, including those
based on contemporary political philosophy, to assess organizational practices. This section
outlines three theories of justice linked to organizational justice—equity theory, social
exchange theory and Sen’s idea of justice, which form the conceptual framework of our study.
Existing research links Adams’ (1965) equity theory and distributive justice (Bonache, 2004;
Tan, 2014). Cugueró-Escofet and Fortin (2014) argued that equity theory is founded on
Aristotle’s principle of merit, where proportionate equality of distribution of goods is said to be
just (Greenberg and Cohen, 1982). People compare the ratios of their contribution and the output
they receive against others, to determine whether inequality exists between what they have
gained (output) through their contribution (input) (Adams, 1965), in terms of a fair distribution
of rewards. Organizationally, distributive justice applies to various payments—rewards,
bonuses, premiums and benefits (Beugr, 2002; Folger and Konovsky, 1989).
Social exchange theory
Social exchange theory has also been linked to organizational justice (Ko and Hur, 2014;
Rahman et al., 2016). This theory posits that individuals evaluate the justice of what they
receive through social exchange and tend to reciprocate it (Gould-Williams and Davies,
2005). Linking organizational justice with social exchange positions workplace justice as a
predictor of behaviors driven by feelings of sentiment toward the organization, where
employees react through reciprocal behaviors that positively affect the organization
(Barclay et al., 2005; Masterson et al., 2000). For Ko and Hur (2014), social exchange theory
comprises two types of exchange: perceived organizational support (the exchange
relationship between employee and workplace); and leader-member exchange. Further,
Ko and Hur (2014) examined the importance of procedural justice in social exchange theory.
They considered procedural justice as perceived organizational support (see also Parzefall
and Salin (2010) and Rhoades and Eisenberger (2002). Accordingly, Ko and Hur (2014)
argued that procedural justice, an element of perceived organizational support, is positively
related to desired work attitudes in employees, such as increased job satisfaction and
decreased turnover intentions.
Otto and Mamatoglu (2015) suggested a connection between social exchange theory and
interactional justice, concluding that perceived organizational support mediates the
relationship between interactional justice and organizational loyalty, and that bullying
mediated the relationship between interactional justice and mental impairment. Employees
consider organizations as human characters, developing a set of beliefs that the
organization cares about employee well-being ( perceived organizational support) (Otto and
Mamatoglu, 2015). In social exchange theory, if employees are treated by the organization in
the manner they expect, they reciprocate favorably (Otto and Mamatoglu, 2015).
Amartya Sen’s idea of justice
Amartya Sen developed his theory of justice based on reason through critically evaluating
and challenging the hitherto existing frontiers of social justice (Osmani, 2010; Wiener, 2013).
In focusing on Rawls theory of justice and fairness, Sen extended the theory by deviating
from and challenging key elements (Marin and Quintana, 2012; Osmani, 2010).
Rawls, through his seminal work A Theory of Justice, developed one of the most influential
philosophical views of justice (Bonache, 2004). Whereas theories of organizational justice
address the fairness of specific practices, Rawls considered the justice of the social system
(Bonache, 2004). Bonache (2004) demonstrated that Rawlsian concepts are applicable to
organizations, assessing “fairness” of organizational practices through social legitimization.
One of Sen’s main criticisms of Rawls’s theory is its supposition of a perfectly just
society, governed by a single set of just rules; Sen considered it unfeasible (Newbert and
Stouder, 2011; Osmani, 2010), asserting it is difficult to conceptualize a “perfectly just
society” in an imperfect world with plurality of perspectives regarding what is “just” due to
the existence of different social conditions (Osmani, 2010). Sen argued that defining an ideal
society is futile, as it will not help society become less unjust (Osmani, 2010). Sen criticized
Rawls’s notion that equality in social primary goods leads to the achievement of justice and
fairness, as this conception disregards human diversity, such as physical characteristics,
opportunities, working conditions and temperament (Marin and Quintana, 2012; Robeyns
and Brighouse, 2010). Sen argued that under Rawls’s theory, a severely disabled person will
not be entitled to additional resources, as Rawls’s differentiation principle does not provide
special consideration based on impairment (Robeyns and Brighouse, 2010).
Contrary to Rawls, Sen approached justice from a capability approach (Robeyns and
Brighouse, 2010), advocating the exploration of characteristics that enable the conversion of
primary goods into outcomes a person values. For Sen, individuals should have substantive
freedoms, namely, the capability to choose a life that one values (Robeyns and Brighouse,
2010). Each society must then decide on their specific capability requirements through a
process of democratic social dialogue (Routh, 2014).
Sen (2009) contended that the Rawlsian “original position,” a hypothetical status where
individuals are ignorant of their attributes, such as social class, gender and disability
(Waldman and Ojelabi, 2016), may entail “exclusionary neglect,” as that approach neglects
issues of equal access to participation (Wiener, 2013). Whilst Rawls emphasized just
institutions and the distribution of resources as enablers to achieve social justice,
Sen focused on ends rather than means (Osmani, 2010; Thomas, 2014), on the justice of the
outcome—the actual realization of justice in the societies involved, rather than merely the
“institutions and rules” (Sen, 2009, p. 9). Sen suggested the Rawlsian approach of
emphasizing justice within social institutions disregards the need to consider justice at the
level of individual conduct (Thomas, 2014). Sen advocated a “comparative view of justice,”
focusing on the “the advancement and or retreat of justice” (Sen, 2009, p. 8) instead of
concentrating on a “just society” (Wiener, 2013). Thus, Sen’s approach assesses justice from
an inclusive and comparative perspective where pluralistic views are considered, as
opposed to the narrow and exclusionary perspective which underpins the Rawlsian
“original position,” behind “a veil of ignorance” (Wiener, 2013). Sen proposed augmenting
justice and fairness that are actually experienced by people, rather than an illusionary
utopian construct of universal justice (Sondak, 2010).
Sondak (2010) argued that Sen’s approach provides a useful platform to study
organizational justice and fairness. This consideration of behaviors and reactions of
individuals in assessing procedures and outcomes, along with the pragmatic approach
embedded in Sen’s notion of justice, makes it a plausible option in any organization (Sondak,
2010). Influenced by the importance placed on employee voice by psychologists studying
fairness, Sondak (2010) highlighted Sen’s acknowledgment of a person’s voice: “A person’s
voice may count either because her interests are involved or because her reasoning and
judgment can enlighten a discussion” (Sen, 2009, p. 108 cited in Sondak, 2010, p. 353). Thus,
employee voice would evoke diverse perspectives, being an impetus for just and fair
outcomes through considering alternatives. The flexibility and pragmatism of Sen’s view of
justice, where individuals are directly involved in determining their own capability
fairness in the
enhancing factors, is evidenced through Rouths’ (2014) research. Routh claimed that this
participatory process of developing capabilities through social dialogue combats inequality.
More recently, Shrivastava et al. (2016) asserted that Sen’s version of social justice is a
useful framework that can be used in an organization to achieve outcomes valued by
employees. They maintained that Sen’s approach helps identify unjust outcomes by
enabling the achievement of both procedural and distributive justice, compared with other
theories of justice focusing either on procedural or distributive justice. Shrivastava et al.
(2016) affirmed that the Rawlsian view on justice and Sen’s approach to justice could lead to
very different outcomes, with the Rawlsian approach condoning individuals acting in their
self-interest and potentially promoting inequity, disregarding people and alienating external
stakeholders from the ambit of justice, because they are external to a given society.
Shrivastava et al. (2016) emphasized that the Rawlsian approach allows for differentiation,
or inequities in the distribution of primary resources, only if it is beneficial to everyone.
Justice and fairness within the realm of DM
In this section, we examine literature relevant to the linkage between DM and organizational
justice and fairness. Roberson and Stevens (2006) suggested that justice is central to
workforce diversity. Choi and Rainey (2014) examined whether DM, implemented in an
environment of perceived organizational fairness and fair treatment, enhances job
satisfaction. They found when employees perceive a higher level of organizational fairness,
diversity efforts become more effective through enabling higher levels of job satisfaction.
Roberson and Stevens (2006), studying justice and DM, established that justice concerns are
raised by employees regarding DM incidents; employee concerns about fair outcomes and
fair processes were significant in relation to discrimination, management treatment (such as
equal treatment) and relationships (such as cohesiveness between diverse employees).
Spaaij et al. (2014) argued that DM emphasizes power and separation, which can lead to
stigmatization, because a clear demarcation is created between those who manage and the
managed (Zanoni and Janssens, 2004). Diversity is inherent in those who are “managed”
when judged against the referent group, those who “manage” (Lorbiecki and Jack, 2000).
According to Mamman et al. (2012), whilst all employees react to incidents of injustice,
minority employees interpret and experience injustice in a unique way, leading to different
outcomes to those of the dominant group. These reflections on power differences and
divergent reactions to injustice between the dominant group and the less privileged, we
believe calls for justice and fairness to be central to DM. Further, literature on the rationale
and outcomes of DM show justice and fairness as integral.
The moral case and the business case rationale for DM
The fundamental question, “what motivates an organization to focus on diversity?,”
uncovers two streams of anticipated outcomes: the classical approach of the moral case for
diversity and the pragmatic approach of the business case (Kramar, 2012; Van Ewijk, 2011).
Underlying both these approaches is a DM rationale, one based on moral justification, where
the well-being of “people” is fundamental, and the other on economic legitimization, focusing
on the organization’s bottom line (Köllen, 2015).
The business case argument for diversity proposes that diversity engenders competitive
advantage and leads to positive outcomes (Kramar, 2012), such as a better corporate image,
increased performance and the ability to attract and retain human capital (Bleijenbergh
et al., 2010). The social justice approach requires organizations to act morally to achieve
equality and fairness, addressing unequal regimes that reflect power differences within the
workforce (Noon, 2007; Spaaij et al., 2014).
The dominance of the business case approach to DM has been criticiz ...
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