Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Just Organization: Creating and Maintaining Justice in Work Environments

Academic journal article Washington and Lee Law Review

The Just Organization: Creating and Maintaining Justice in Work Environments

Article excerpt

One of the most enduring themes of life in America is justice. Indeed, our national founding documents are based on justice. Our pledge of allegiance even ends with the words "and justice for all." One might just as well call Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech his "freedom and justice" speech.

Yet the concept of justice, though so thoroughly a part of our national heritage, receives little attention in the workplace. Certainly, we have laws and regulations governing workplace behavior, grounded in our legal and regulatory systems. But official rules and regulations do not cover many facets of business organizational life. Principles of justice, rather than formal laws, rules, and regulations, may guide behavior in the vast arena of day-today interaction at work. However, justice is not well understood in the workplace, though a growing body of research suggests it ought to be understood better because justice clearly has an important effect on work organizations.

This Article is about justice in work organizations. I begin with a definition and overview of justice in the organizational context. I then link justice with the moral quality of the work climate, and argue that each leads to and reinforces the other. The third section of the paper is a report of empirical research on the effects of justice in a simulated organization. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of how organizations can become more just, and why justice makes good business sense.


Organizational literature often equates justice and fairness.(1) This literature generally defines justice as processes and outcomes characterized by a belief that outcomes are deserved, entitlements are fulfilled, and outcomes and processes are morally acceptable. This definition implies that justice is a subjective concept, influenced by an individual's own perceptions, values, and cultural norms, and by what the individual believes would happen to others in similar situations. Justice is also a relative concept, depending on prevailing social and cultural mores for its meaning and enactment.

Perceived justice is more important for understanding human behavior than "objective" justice.(2) Even if one could measure the objective justice of an outcome or a procedure, the reactions of people to the outcome or procedure is as much a function of their values and beliefs as a function of the actual events. Thus, to understand the relationship between justice and human behavior, one must examine justice in the realm of subjective perceptions.

The definition offered above includes references to both outcomes and processes. Social scientists draw important distinctions between outcomes and processes. This distinction is found in social science literature that discusses justice. Outcome justice, often called distributive justice, refers to the fairness of particular decisions or allocations. For example, distributive justice refers to whether a promotion is fair, a raise is fair, a job discipline action is fair, and so forth. While distributive justice is important, it is not the focus of this paper. Rather, the focus of this paper is procedural justice.

Procedural justice has to do with the process by which a decision is made, rather than the decision itself.(3) Again, one must distinguish between actual, formal procedures and employees' perceptions of procedures. Belief that a process is procedurally fair is more important for predicting reactions to the process than the "actual" fairness of the procedure, according to existing norms of fairness. Certainly, objectively fair procedures are more likely to produce perceptions of fairness, but if our goal is to understand human behavior in the workplace, perceptions of fairness are more important.

How do employees make judgments about procedural fairness? To answer this question we draw upon the work of Blair H. Sheppard and associates who offer a simple categorization scheme for analyzing procedural justice. …

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