It's Just How I Feel: Lessons in Procedural Justice

Published June 6, 2009

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you were treated unfairly? Most of us have at one time or another. Certainly we have heard others complain that a selection process was not fair or that someone hearing a dispute did not decide the matter fairly. We have written about what makes a decision “legally” fair many times in this column under the topic of “procedural fairness”. To be legally fair, there are certain minimum legal standards of fairness that must be met – the right to a hearing, the right to know the case to be met and the right to an unbiased decision maker are the most important.

But there is another important way to think about fairness – how fair the individual involved in the process perceives it to be. Legal fairness, which speaks to the objective elements of fairness, does not necessarily translate into fairness in the minds of those involved in a matter. In other words, a matter may be resolved in a ‘legally’ fair way but those affected might not feel they have been treated ‘fairly’. This subjective view of fairness is known as “procedural justice”.

Perceptions of fairness, or procedural justice, have been shown to have strong effects on attitudes about institutions and the authorities representing them. High levels of perceived fairness dramatically affect factors such as the amount of trust one has in the institution and its people, the degree of citizenship embraced by members of an organization, and the extent to which people will accept and comply with decisions and processes. For example, an individual who perceives a disciplinary process to be fair and to have been carried out fairly is more likely to be compliant with any sanctions that may be imposed.

Perceived fairness also mitigates the effects of a negative outcome. For example, an athlete, although disappointed, is more likely to accept not being selected to a team if he or she perceives the selection process to have been fair. The more severe the negative outcome, the more important is this perception of procedural justice. It is a very robust effect and pervasive across organizational decisions and behaviours. Although our interest in procedural justice focuses on how we can better deal with disputes and design dispute resolution systems, the concept applies equally to selection situations, disciplinary matters, hiring, firing, promotions – in fact, almost any organizational decision about the allocation of rights, benefits and opportunities. .

The consequences of the perceived fairness – satisfaction, trust, compliance and organizational citizenship, are worth paying attention to in the sport world. For example, research has reliably demonstrated that the perception of fairness, and the degree of satisfaction with a decision, varies with the amount of control an individual has in either presenting their case or marshalling the information to be considered by a decision-maker. This is not too surprising – it is reasonable to think that the more one feels able to affect an outcome, particularly in one’s favour, the more fair the process will be seen to be. It is notable, however, that these feelings of fairness seem to persist regardless of outcome.

Being able to ‘tell one’s story’ is therefore clearly an important factor in procedural justice. But, it turns out that an even more potent factor is having the listener give due consideration to the views and information expressed by an individual. It is not enough to simply allow the expression – the decision-maker, or institutional representative, must genuinely acknowledge and consider the expression.

One particular study in procedural justice is worth describing. [1] Researchers wondered if the perception of fairness would be diminished if the decision-maker was seen as biased or as acting in bad faith, or if the value, or importance, of the outcome increased. In fact, the only condition that had the effect of decreasing the perception of fairness was when individuals felt the decision maker was not giving due consideration to their views. Remarkably, perceptions of fairness does not seem to turn on issues such as the impartiality of the decision-maker – even if the decision-maker is viewed as biased, the procedure will be viewed as fair if the decision-maker gives a chance to tell the story and gives consideration to that perspective. Finding ways to listen to, and acknowledge the input of others, is clearly important, as is treating people politely and with respect.

Finding novel ways to allocate some degree of control over a process to other participants can reap great benefit. Writing clear reasons for a decision that recognizes the position of all parties or asking for input into the design of a procedure are simple examples of engaging others and acknowledging their input. From a dispute resolution perspective, disputants view a process that shares control between themselves and a third party neutral (i.e., a facilitator or mediator) as being fairer than simply giving control to the disputants. Such findings can resonate with policy decisions and the way sport organizations approach disputes.

Several other factors impact the experience of procedural fairness. People seem to evaluate the fairness of procedures using certain criteria including whether there was representation of the views of all interested parties, the consistency of actions across parties and in comparison to other disputes, the impartiality of the decision-maker, the accuracy of the information used, the opportunity to correct or review a decision, and the ethicality of those involved in the decision process (people tend to comply with outcomes they consider to be just and moral even where the outcome is not necessarily in their own self-interest). These factors seem to have universal application; that is, the personal characteristics of people have little to do with how they perceive fairness (including characteristics of sex, culture and income).

Not every factor may operate in every situation - different procedures maximize different aspects of what is seen as a fair process. Nonetheless, the next time you hear complaints that the team selection was ‘political’ or the hearing was ‘unfair’, think about this concept of procedural justice and why people sometimes view what might have been a carefully thought-out and legally correct process, as unfair. Developing procedures and policies that are both objectively fair and subjectively fair may answer many of these concerns.

[1] Lind, E.A. & Tyler, T.R. (1988). The Social Psychology of Procedural Justice. New York: Plenum Press at p. 106.

Originally published: Coaches Plan (2009) Vol. 16(2)

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