What Makes an Organization Just?

Thus the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have, in our time, carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires and have applied this new science to the greatest number of purposes. Is this the result of accident, or is there in reality any necessary connection between the principle of association and that of equality?

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

In the field of organizational studies, organizational citizenship behavior is the degree to which individuals go above minimum performance requirements. But what inspires employees to do so? It turns out it's not additional perks or benefits, but instead employee engagement, defined by Forbes as the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. Organizational citizenship behavior is a direct outcome of organizational justice. 

How do we establish organizational justice? First, we must consider that the absence of an equality of conditions necessitates law and its enforcement. Laws require societies, among other things, to make evaluations of what is just and unjust. Alexis de Tocqueville identifies organizations as associations and mused about the “constant” forming of associations in America. For Tocqueville, “associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.”

It is appropriate that, within a democracy, citizens are beholden to their own estimations of justice insofar as they do not infringe on another. However, singular perspectives do not always perfect and pursue the object of common desires as Tocqueville describes. As a result, individuals organize. Once structured though, is an organization simply as just as the sum of its parts?

The construct of organizational justice helps answer this question. Any unit of people coming together under management for a common goal may be referred to as an organization. Thus, the ubiquity of organizations and organizational memberships in a democratic society should nudge us to consider the justness of our associations.

Too often the justice of an organization is determined by what it does as opposed to what it is. For an organization to demonstrate outward justice it must first be inwardly just. Thus, organizational justice is more internal-facing than external and more about the character of an organization than its cause.

Organizational justice is descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive, and is revealed through perceptions of individuals that make up the organization. For an organization to be just, a personal assessment of the ethical and moral standing of the leaders, participants, and their decisions within the organization is made. [1] In other words, do members perceive their treatment by peers and those in authority to be fair?

Although fairness is a social construct, scholars such as Jerald Greenberg [2] identify three core elements of organizational justice: distributive justice,  procedural justice, and interactional justice.

1. Distributive justice within an organization is concerned with how limited resources are allocated. The foundation of distributive justice is equity theory, which suggests individuals are most interested in how much is received vice how much is contributed. Thus, an organization is perceived to be just if participants believe there is a fair distribution of rewards, benefits, or even punitive measures.

 2. Procedural justice judges the processes that lead to such results. Many scholars liken this element to an organization’s legitimacy. If insiders or outsiders perceive the process that leads to decisions as just, it is theorized that the organization as a whole is just.

 3. Interactional justice simply examines the treatment of individuals. Interpersonal relationships consisting of respect, loyalty, and honesty are all elements found to influence the quality of interactions participants enjoy within an organization.

Outcomes of Organizational Justice

So what does an organization demonstrating qualities of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice look like? Academically, the core elements of organizational justice have been associated with or correlated to these outcomes: a) trust in supervisor, b) improved performance, c) increased job satisfaction, d) organizational commitment, and e) enhanced organizational citizenship behavior, or the degree in which members of an organization go above the minimum criteria of membership.

Nearly all of us are part of some organizational structure. Our places of employment, worship, entertainment, and civic engagement afford us the opportunity to evaluate and contribute to the justness of an organization. The fact that challenges of commonality and equality may be best addressed through organizations does not, however, excuse the individual from such pursuits. If organizational justice is collectively composed of fairness, then the individual pursuit of justice should also be the pursuit of fairness. After all, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, “fairness is what justice really is.”

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.  

[1] Cropanza, R., Bowen, D.E., & Gilliland, S.W. (2007). The Management of Organizational Justice. Academy of Management Perspectives, 21(4).
[2] Greenberg, J. (1987). A Taxonomy of Organizational Justice Theories. The Academy of Management Review, 12(1).