The role of process fairness in decisions

Lynda Bourne
February 12, 2015

When you have to deliver bad news to a person, the processes you use are at least as important as the decision you have made.

The car manufacturing industry in my home town of Melbourne, Australia is in the process of ceasing manufacture and moving to an importing business. Over the next few years, thousands of jobs will be lost or transformed. Progress and change are inevitable and the transition has been reluctantly accepted by most people. However a few weeks ago, when the first major round of layoffs were occurring at one of the manufacturers, I was really surprised to hear the local trade union representative complimenting the factory management on the way they had handled the decision as to who should go now, who had a job for a few more months and who would be relocated into the new import business.

The key factor was not the decision—no one like being retrenched—or even the fairness of the choices between who goes and who stays; the key was the empathy and consideration shown to each of the laid off workers by their management, and the fact the management team, most of whom would be losing their jobs as well, had taken the time to speak with each worker and appreciate their input to the business over many years.

By applying process fairness and giving everyone an change to be heard, what could have been a very angry and disruptive event was transformed into a ‘wake’, remembering the good times and the contributions made by the industry. It was obviously still a sad and stressful time but far less so than may otherwise have been.

Process fairness

Process fairness is quite distinct from outcome fairness. Outcome fairness refers to judgements made about the final outcome; in this case it is patently unfair to lose your job after 20 or 30 years due to a combination of factors largely outside of anyone’s control.

Process fairness is aligned with the concepts of procedural fairness and natural justice and particularly applies to decisions affecting the team leader/team member (or manager/employee) relationship. Broadly speaking, there are three intertwined components of process fairness.

  1. How much input the team member believes they have in the decision-making process: Are their opinions requested and given serious consideration?
  2. How team members believe decisions are made and implemented: Are they consistent? Are they based on accurate information? Can mistakes be corrected? Are the personal biases of the decision-maker minimised? Is ample advance notice given? Is the decision process transparent?
  3. How managers behave: Do they explain why a decision was made? Do they treat employees respectfully, actively listening to their concerns and empathising with their points of view?

Process fairness makes a big difference! A study of nearly 1,000 people, led by Allan Lind and Jerald Greenberg, found that a major determinant of whether employees sue for wrongful termination is their perception of how fairly the termination process was carried out. Only 1% of ex-employees who felt that they were treated with a high degree of process fairness filed a wrongful termination lawsuit versus 17% of those who believed they were treated with a low degree of process fairness. Similar results can be found for patients suing doctors and customers suing businesses.

Process fairness doesn’t ensure that the team members will always get what they want; or that the final decision is ‘fair’, but it does ensure that they will have a chance to be heard. Rather it is concerned with the procedures used by a decision-maker, however, it is highly likely that a decision-maker who follows a fair process will reach a fair and correct decision.

Fairness demands that the affected person (or people) are told about the impending decision and are given the chance to reply before a decision that negatively affects their existing interest or legitimate expectations is made. Put simply, hearing both sides of the story is critical to good decision-making. You get a better decision and happier team members.

There are six rules that apply to procedural justice (or natural justice), that equally affect procedural fairness:

  1. consistency
  2. bias suppression
  3. accuracy
  4. correctibility
  5. representativeness
  6. ethicality

Process fairness in the workplace and in communication, simply requires things to be fair to everyone; when something is applied it has to be applied to everyone and procedures need to be consistent with the moral and ethical values.

So next time you have to make a decision that will affect your team, rather than trying to make the best decision on your own, tell the people about the decision and the reasons it needs to be made, ask for their input and take the time to listen, and then once you have reached your decision explain the reasons clearly and leave space for feedback, particularly from anyone the decision affects negatively. You may be surprised by the support you get.

Author avatar
Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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