In part one of this three-part series, we discussed a trap companies often fall into when it comes to avoiding and resolving conflict: failing to anticipate and plan for high-risk situations. Part two covers situations that may give rise to the perception of unfairness in the workplace, which is another common trigger for conflicts and crises.

The Perception of Unfairness

The study of organizational justice, the perception of unfairness at work, is an important part of organizational psychology. Research in the field of organizational justice focuses both on tangible results of perceptions of unfairness—such as turnover rates and lower productivity—as well as intangible results—such as decreased morale and decreased commitment to the company or brand. In my own practice, I see these results all the time. The concepts of organizational justice make a lot of common sense, but despite this, companies continue to behave in ways that might be fair in theory, but create a strong and reasonable perception of unfairness. Here are three ways in which the perception of unfairness may arise at work:

1. Procedural Fairness

Are your procedures well-established, well-communicated, and carried out consistently? Employees notice what management does (and does not do). Most employers have policies and procedures in place that address important workplace issues, such as wage and hour policies, discrimination and equal employment opportunity policies, dress codes, and attendance standards, among others. Once you have a good policy, make sure employees know about it. Most importantly, follow your own policy and do so in a fair and uniform way. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be treated the same, but it does mean that you provide procedural fairness. If you have a rule, make sure it applies equally to all employees, regardless of rank, age, gender, etc.

2. Distributive Fairness

Does your company distribute rewards and punishments equitably? If an employee comes in on time every day, follows all the rules, and does a good job but then receives the same raise as his or her coworker who is constantly late or absent, does shoddy work, and breaks rules, there is no motivation for the good employee to continue to do his or her job well. The perception that such an employer is creating is that rule-following, diligent employees will receive the same rewards as bad performers.

3. Interactional Fairness

Does your company promote (and reward) respectful, professional interaction among employees and between leaders and employees? Oftentimes, it isn’t the action taken that matters (be it a termination, layoff, discipline, or refusal to give a raise), but how the action is carried out. Delivering bad news is never easy, but employees appreciate being treated compassionately and humanely, even if the message is not a pleasant one to hear. Beyond delivering bad news, is your culture one that promotes respect in general? If not, this may be a huge trigger for internal and external claims.

The High-Value Employee Scenario

One common scenario that plays out daily at companies nationwide involves what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Select Task Force on Harassment’s report describes as conflict resolution involving a “high-value” employee. Here is how this scenario plays out: An employee complains that a “high-value” employee is behaving inappropriately (the high-value employee might be a leader of the organization, an important researcher at a university, or an employee who brings in business). The complaint usually involves allegations of inappropriate behavior—harassment, bullying, discrimination, or some other form of interactional injustice. Most often, these allegations are linked to some protected characteristic, such as gender, race, or religion. As a result of the complaint, the company embarks on an investigation, but too often, because the complaint involves a high-value employee, a decision is made before the investigation even begins. (Most commonly, a decision is made that the high-value employee cannot be removed from his or her position). Now the complaining employee will perceive procedural unfairness in addition to interactional injustice; he or she understands that if the allegation was against another employee, the investigation would have been performed differently (and in his or her view, it would have been performed fairly).

In the end, the findings of an investigation should take one of three forms: (1) the allegations are substantiated; (2) the allegations are not substantiated as stated (for example, the accused has behaved unprofessionally, but the behavior might not be linked to the protected category alleged, as would be the case in the classic “equal opportunity jerk” scenario); or (3) the allegations are unsubstantiated (although in this scenario, the question remains as to whether there is a reasonable perception of unfairness). Unfortunately, regardless of the findings, when it comes to “high-value” employees, companies often take minimal, if any, action against the accused because, as the moniker implies, that person is simply too important to the company. When this occurs, the complaining party and the employees who participated in the investigation perceive distributive unfairness; they recognize that the high-value employee is treated much more favorably than anyone else. And usually one more type of organizational injustice occurs: informational injustice, the perception that information is not shared equally in the workplace. Too often, an employer will communicate very little with the complaining party or his or her fellow employees, typically citing confidentiality. From the employees’ perspective, a workplace that operates in this way is a workplace of those who are “in” and others who are “out.”

Companies would be wise to understand the importance perception plays in the workplace. The ultimate conclusion of this area of study and research (which I see playing out in the real world daily) is that even if decisions look fair on paper (which is important, of course), having employees who reasonably perceive that they are not getting a fair shake will inevitably lead to conflict—or worse, an exodus.

Part three discusses how putting too much emphasis on legal compliance not only leads to a compliance-driven culture (rather than a culture that values openness and transparency), but often leads to a failure to comply with legal mandates.