In The Name Of Justice

Although we strive to make working environments welcoming and supportive, circumstances and personalities occasionally combine in ways that result in misunderstandings, conflict, grievances and, at worst, disciplinary proceedings leading to termination. When dealing with such difficulties–or better yet, designing policies and training to prevent these situations from happening in the first place–words like justice, fairness and equity come to mind.

But what are justice, fairness and equity? Details of disagreements often vary from incident to incident, and each person interprets others’ behaviors through individual filters. Further, cultural norms differ among agencies, as does the context in which those behaviors occur. Finally, what role does intent play? Should it matter whether a person “meant it” or not?


Consider the following case: A supervisor and employee have established an open working relationship, and without being encouraged, the employee gradually and willingly reveals personal challenges that may or may not affect work performance. The supervisor, explicitly addressing the power differential existing between them, offers a “friendly ear–any time, any place.” Shortly thereafter, the supervisor discovers the employee’s potentially terminal breach-of-agency ethics, and informs the employee of an impending investigation. When the ethics issue is resolved with the employee being reprimanded, the employee files a harassment complaint against the supervisor. How will justice be served here?

According to J. H. Bernardin, in Human resource management: An experiential approach, justice is described as the perception (both yours and others) that you are receiving what you deserve, and it has two forms:

1. Procedural justice is based on rules, laws or policies that make no distinction among “who” is involved; an ordinary person is treated with the same degree of fairness as an influential individual. A “zero-tolerance” substance-abuse policy is an example.

2. Distributive justice embodies the equitable concept of “the punishment fitting the crime,” depending on the conditions. Arriving late for work may not be considered as serious as stealing money from the cash box.

Human-resource principles provide a framework within which justice can be administered in ways that are both fair and equitable (see Figure). The first guideline is a variation of “the customer is always right,” where the perception of the employee takes precedence over that of the alleged offender. If an employee feels discriminated against or singled-out in some way, then that claim carries enough weight to initiate proceedings.

Second, actions are what matter, not the intent behind an action. If an employee has been touched, for example, the action of touching is the important fact, whether or not the person who made contact was trying to be friendly or had other motives. Intentions can be disguised. Third, by law, policy or norm, some behaviors are considered appropriate, while others are not. Without exception, staff never is permitted to push or shove one another in anger, for example.

A Closer Look

Examining the Figure in more detail reveals eight possible considerations. Because the perception of offense is the factor to determine whether charges are filed, dividing the Figure vertically as shown is a helpful way to proceed. The least desirable condition is obvious; if behavior is unquestionably inappropriate, coupled with bad intent and offense taken, then discipline clearly is necessary because a blatant violation has occurred.

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