Together with Laurie Barclay, associate professor in Organizational Behaviour/Human Resource Management, I recently conducted a series of experiments at Laurier to examine how co-workers' emotions can influence employees' fairness judgments and reactions. This research demonstrated that people can infer information about how other people are treated from others’ emotions and use this information when they evaluate the fairness of their own treatment. For example, our findings suggest that people who observe another person expressing anger or guilt subsequently perceive lower levels of fairness, even when they are not unfairly treated themselves.
Past research had established that feeling unfairly treated in the workplace can have profound negative consequences for employees and organizations including depression and insomnia to underperformance and retaliation. Ensuring that employees feel treated fairly is thus incredibly important, but we know surprisingly little about how employees judge whether they are being treated fairly. We do know that employees care about the fairness of the compensation that they receive for their work; they also care about the fairness of the procedures by which this compensation is determined, and they want to be treated with dignity and respect. However, the justice literature has traditionally under-emphasized the inherently subjective and social nature of fairness. Our research challenges the traditional focus of the literature by demonstrating how employees' fairness judgments can be influenced by social and contextual factors, including co-workers' emotions.
Surprisingly, we also found that others’ emotions can indirectly influence individual attitudes (e.g., outcome satisfaction) and behaviour. For example, our research indicates that individuals are more likely to retaliate and less willing to help their organization when other people’s emotions suggest that the organization may not treat others fairly.
These findings are important, because they suggest that others’ emotions can influence individual justice judgments and reactions even when individuals are not mistreated themselves and in the absence of explicit information about the fairness of others’ treatment.
This research also has important implications for managers. Given that our findings indicate that employees do not need to talk with each other to share fairness-related information, organizations should be very concerned about managing employees' fairness judgments and their emotional reactions. For example, an employee who is treated fairly personally may still perceive unfairness when they believe that others are treated unfairly. Similarly, an employee who receives a favorable outcome may be dissatisfied with this outcome if other’s emotions suggest that others received outcomes through unfair procedures. Taken together, our findings suggest that it is critical for organizations to carefully manage the fairness judgments of (a) individuals who are directly affected by a fairness-related event and (b) observers who may not be directly affected by the event.
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