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Grow Your Business Your Team

Frustrated Employees Perceive Injustices at Work

If you’re still looking for a New Year’s Resolution for your company, here’s a suggestion: Figure out how to stop frustrating your employees.

Workplace injustice – whether caused by unfair employee treatment or unequal distribution of pay – can cause significant psychological distress among employees. In order to avoid creating the feeling of injustice in the workplace, employers should consider creating clear boundaries between different types of employees.

That’s the finding of new research that says that employees who feel that they belong to a smaller “sub-group” at work are less likely to resent what they perceive to be mistreatment in the workplace, which can lead to psychological distress that the National Mental Health Association estimates costs American businesses $193 billion a year.

“Psychological distress is often caused by an injustice, either real or perceived, which can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, exhaustion and disengagement from fellow workers,” said Chester Spell, Rutgers University professor of management. “Therefore organizations need to understand and address employees’ mental health which can have a significant impact upon corporate effectiveness and profitability.”

Chester and his fellow researchers found that injustice in the workplace takes on several forms including procedural injustices, which have to do with the way decisions are made for the workplace group; distributive injustices or the perceived fairness of outcome distributions such as bonuses and pay raises; informational injustices, which is providing adequate and honest explanations for company decisions; and interpersonal injustices, which is the perceived fairness in treating individuals with dignity, respect and courtesy by supervisors or administrators.

Of the four, interpersonal injustice had the strongest effect on psychological distress , said Spell. Distributive injustice was next strongest.

“As expected, our results indicate that employees who feel their supervisors did not support them or look out for their interests were the most distressed,” Spell said. He added that injustices, bullying or abuse directed personally at an employee can hurt to the core, especially if done in front of others. “Such an attack really sticks on a person and affects their mental health in that workplace situation.”

Spell and co-researchers Katerina Bezrukova of Santa Clara University and Jamie Perry, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers, undertook a study to determine if the composition of work groups could play a role in reducing psychological distress arising from injustice.

One way, the researchers suggested, is through demographic fault lines, which are alignments of group member characteristics (for example: age, gender, seniority, education). “Fault lines are often considered disruptive and can cause rifts within the workplace. In fact, previous research has focused on how fault lines can create an environment of distrust, conflict and other problems,” Spell said.

However, there can be a positive side to these workplace divisions which can be healthy.

“We found that members of subgroups within a group with a faultline can cope with injustice by cooperating with each other and lessen the effects of injustice on psychological distress ,” he said.

Injustices can vary across groups depending upon their demographic composition. When, for example, office policies seem to affect one subgroup more than others, they will often create an informal pact to address the supervisor about the perceived injustice. “People who are more alike (women, older people, occupational groups, etc.) may do this to protect themselves,” said Spell.

The study found that fault line subgroups tend to support their fellow workers who seem to be the target of unfair treatment.

“They can offer their concerns and help make other employees feel better about the interpersonal injustice inflicted upon their co-workers,” said Spell. “This support, in turn, shows how fault lines can be ‘healthy divides’ by providing a potential coping mechanism for workplace injustices.

Spell said managers should be aware of the composition of work groups within the organization since fault lines are common in groups because of globalization and diversification of the workplace. For example, if an organization has gone through downsizing and layoffs and surviving employees are experiencing anxiety about their jobs, managers should recognize that groups with fault lines may actually buffer the effects of workforce reductions on employees’ psychological well being.

The research is in the current issue of the Journal Personnel Psychology.


Jeanette Mulvey
Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.