In The Name Of Justice

Although we strive to make working environments welcoming and supportive, circumstances and personalities occasionally combine in ways that result in misunderstandings, conflict, grievances and, at worst, disciplinary proceedings leading to termination. When dealing with such difficulties--or better yet, designing policies and training to prevent these situations from happening in the first place--words like justice, fairness and equity come to mind.

But what are justice, fairness and equity? Details of disagreements often vary from incident to incident, and each person interprets others’ behaviors through individual filters. Further, cultural norms differ among agencies, as does the context in which those behaviors occur. Finally, what role does intent play? Should it matter whether a person “meant it” or not?


Consider the following case: A supervisor and employee have established an open working relationship, and without being encouraged, the employee gradually and willingly reveals personal challenges that may or may not affect work performance. The supervisor, explicitly addressing the power differential existing between them, offers a “friendly ear--any time, any place.” Shortly thereafter, the supervisor discovers the employee’s potentially terminal breach-of-agency ethics, and informs the employee of an impending investigation. When the ethics issue is resolved with the employee being reprimanded, the employee files a harassment complaint against the supervisor. How will justice be served here?

According to J. H. Bernardin, in Human resource management: An experiential approach, justice is described as the perception (both yours and others) that you are receiving what you deserve, and it has two forms:

1. Procedural justice is based on rules, laws or policies that make no distinction among “who” is involved; an ordinary person is treated with the same degree of fairness as an influential individual. A “zero-tolerance” substance-abuse policy is an example.

2. Distributive justice embodies the equitable concept of “the punishment fitting the crime,” depending on the conditions. Arriving late for work may not be considered as serious as stealing money from the cash box.

Human-resource principles provide a framework within which justice can be administered in ways that are both fair and equitable (see Figure). The first guideline is a variation of “the customer is always right,” where the perception of the employee takes precedence over that of the alleged offender. If an employee feels discriminated against or singled-out in some way, then that claim carries enough weight to initiate proceedings.

Second, actions are what matter, not the intent behind an action. If an employee has been touched, for example, the action of touching is the important fact, whether or not the person who made contact was trying to be friendly or had other motives. Intentions can be disguised. Third, by law, policy or norm, some behaviors are considered appropriate, while others are not. Without exception, staff never is permitted to push or shove one another in anger, for example.

A Closer Look

Examining the Figure in more detail reveals eight possible considerations. Because the perception of offense is the factor to determine whether charges are filed, dividing the Figure vertically as shown is a helpful way to proceed. The least desirable condition is obvious; if behavior is unquestionably inappropriate, coupled with bad intent and offense taken, then discipline clearly is necessary because a blatant violation has occurred.

Less clear is good intentions leading to unrealized inappropriate behavior. Ignorance of existing law, agency policies or cultural differences can result in offense being taken that puzzles or confuses the actor, but is obvious to other staff and management. If the action is not too offensive, mandatory remedial training will reeducate the offender, preventing further occurrences.

Conversely, one might assume that appropriate behavior and honorable intentions could not possibly result in offense being taken. Nevertheless, any manager who has faced a belligerent employee after conducting a normal performance review will attest otherwise. It may be time to evaluate whether this employee’s value system or personality characteristics are a good fit with the agency.

Even seemingly appropriate behavior can be offensive if driven by bad intentions, and this goes to the heart of the difference between procedural and distributive justice. For example, a “three strikes and you’re out” late-for-work policy that does not account for the reason why the employee was late could provide a manager with an opportunity to abuse power. If Kim has been late twice because of oversleeping, but misses the third time because he saved a lost and scared child from wandering into freeway traffic, he might be upset if his manager enforced the policy to “teach everybody a lesson.”

Proceed With Caution

Moving to the four instances wherein no offense was taken, it’s important to remember that the absence of immediate offense is no guarantee that offense will not be taken in the future. Extending the example above to include the reactions of his fellow employees, it may well be that they also feel that he was done an injustice, and their trust in agency management’s fairness has been hurt; morale suffers as a result. Bernardin suggests that employees’ perception of justice affects job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, absenteeism, sabotage and interpersonal conflicts.

A less-serious version of the well-intended inappropriate behavior--without offense taken--described above is highly contextual, and therefore potentially troublesome. For example, a manager whose communication style includes touching people, or the notorious “hugger,” may be interpreted as empathetic by some, but highly offensive by others: a disaster-in-waiting that can be mitigated by raising awareness during staff orientation and continuous training before anything happens.

Finally, the ideal situation exists when behavior consistently is legally and culturally appropriate, well-intended, and well-received: no worries. This environment is created and maintained by thoughtful and thorough policies that clearly spell out relevant law and agency norms, consequences influenced by both procedural and distributive justice, and an on-going orientation and training regimen that reminds agency staff of its professional responsibilities.

Work cited:

Bernardin, J. H. Human resource management: An experiential approach. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2007.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at