I have often said that whether an employee is viewed as being treated "fairly" may predict whether an employment decision will later be upheld by a judge or jury.  courtesy morgue file "notebook"

A recent study, however, shows that issues of "fairness" relating to employment decision may also affect a worker’s outlook on life.  A Washington Post article has the details:

A pair of psychologists recently evaluated hundreds of employees at a large North American university that was in the grip of painful change. The researchers wanted to find out whether there were factors that explained why some employees successfully weathered the transition and reengaged with their jobs, while others spiraled into cynicism and exhaustion — the classic signs of burnout.

Burnout has been long associated with being overworked and underpaid, but psychologists Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter found that these were not the crucial factors. The single biggest difference between employees who suffered burnout and those who did not was the whether they thought that they were being treated unfairly or fairly.

"These fairness issues can be huge," said Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Issues around fairness are highly linked to the anger and cynicism that are linked to burnout."

When a worker suffers burnout, she added: "You feel you have been treated with disrespect. It generates enormous personal anger for small things because of what it implies."

Although not the subject of their study, I have seen several instances of laid-off employees who sue — not necessarily because they were discriminated against — but because they did not believe the decision was "fair".  A lawsuit is seen as a way to right a wrong, in their view.  Anger and cyncism about the future are certainly common in such cases.

I am not implying that all cases are brought for this reason (nor am I saying that all cases that are brought are without merit).  But certainly the "fairness" of the employment decision plays a major role in how employees and others view the decision.

So what’s the takeaway for employers from this study? While it’s easy to make business decisions in a vacuum, explaining the reasons for those decisions and ensuring that employees understand the "fairness" of them, may play a major role in reducing exposure to lawsuits in the future.  In addition, keeping employee morale up — even in tough times — may not be an impossible task, but only if employees are made to understand that the decisions may not be ones they "like" but they are fair.