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Is Your Manager Unfair? It May Be Because They're Overworked, Study Finds
Leah Thomas image
Leah Thomas,

An overworked manager may be the real cause to unfair treatment of employees at work, according to a recent paper published in the Academy of Management Journal.

"Unfairness may be less about bosses being biased or mean, and more about them lacking adequate personal resources to juggle multiple, competing priorities," the three researchers, Elad N. Sherf, Ravi S. Gajendran, and Vijaya Venkataramani, wrote.

Unfair treatment could mean a boss not consulting an employee on an important decision that involves him or her or a manager setting inconsistent rules or expectations for different employees.

The researchers conducted three separate studies with 512 people total. The surveys sought to better understand whether or not overworked bosses were more likely to treat employees fairly, as well as what companies can do to help their managers treat employees more fairly.

While fairness in the workplace has been found to be beneficial for employees, including leading them to become "better performers, helpful to colleagues, more committed to their workgroups and the organization, and less likely to steal or be rude to others," the researchers discovered that some bosses are "simply put, too busy to be fair."

Through the three studies, the researchers found that when fairness competes with a manager's other duties, it can become the "unfortunate casualty of busyness."

"They are often expected to juggle multiple responsibilities under intense time and work pressures, and so treating employees fairly may take a backseat to other pressing priorities," Sherf, Gajendran, and Vijaya wrote.

In order to resolve this issue, the researchers identified the four different aspects of fairness that managers must execute in order to be considered fair by employees.

  • Distributive fairness: rewarding each employee equally for his/her individual work
  • Transparent and clear procedures: making sure decisions are consistently applied across employees, eliminating bias, and giving workers the opportunity to voice concerns
  • Informational fairness: explaining the reasoning behind a decision in a timely manner
  • Interpersonally fair: treating each employee with equal levels of dignity and respect

But managers and employees may already be aware of this finding.

The surveys discovered that employees often complain that their bosses are "too busy" to meet with them, listen to their concerns, or update them on work. And managers have similarly acknowledged this, saying they are aware of their insensitivity and unfair treatment but are "overloaded" or short on time.

Sherf, Gajendran, and Vijaya offered their solution to both managers and companies.

"For managers who want to ensure that they treat their employees fairly, it is important to shield being fair from other competing tasks," the researchers wrote. "Try cementing time with your employees into your schedule so that you’re less susceptible to the effects of workload."

They also suggest companies work to award managers who exhibit fair behavior toward employees.

"Doing so clearly signals that fair treatment is a core leadership task," they said.

"Prioritizing technical work tasks harmed fairness, but did not improve technical performance. So organizations that reward fairness may see a win-win: busy leaders can act fairly without compromising their performance on core work tasks."

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