Your Unfair Boss Might Just Be Overworked

Maybe Your Boss Isn’t Just a Sadistic Jerk

Jul 19, 2018
Management
As Featured In 
Academy of Management Journal

Think your boss is a jerk because he or she treated you unfairly? It’s possible your manager just has too much to do.

Recent research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, finds that many managers are just too busy to be fair. They are juggling so many responsibilities that fairness often falls by the wayside.

“Everybody wants to be fair, but they just can’t because being fair is not very easy,” says study author Vijaya Venkataramani, a management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “It takes up a lot of personal resources. To be fair, you have to act consistently, you have to be respectful, and it’s very difficult when you have 10 other things also demanding your attention.”

Venkataramani says the onus to change is on organizations, not managers. Most organizations — even those that say they value fairness — often evaluate or reward managers on task-oriented factors such as hitting sales goals or production targets. And managers can’t do everything well. Organizations should want to change, Venkataramani says, because when employees are treated fairly, they perform better, are less likely to do things like steal or cheat, and are less likely to quit.

Venkataramani conducted the research with Maryland Smith Ph.D. Elad N. Sherf, now at New York University, and Ravi S. Gajendran of Florida International University. The researchers conducted various studies, including field experiments, surveys of managers and their direct reports, data from other sources, and daily tracking surveys of 130 managers for 10 days.

The researchers say to really change behavior, organizations should send a clear message by offering incentives to managers.

“It’s only when organizations very consciously reward fairness as part of performance reviews that this kind of mentality could change,” Venkataramani says. And this is not something that most organizations do. There are very few that evaluate and reward fairness. (Google is one company doing it well.)

And, the researchers say, acting fairly doesn’t mean busy managers have to compromise performance on core work tasks. They found no improvement in technical performance for managers who prioritized technical tasks over devoting time to dealing with employees with fairness.

To be efficient and fair, managers should block time on their calendars to deal with employees’ needs and explain decisions, suggest the researchers. For example, they should consider scheduling regular one-on-one meetings with subordinates, town halls, team meetings and walks around the office to interact with employees. This will prevent them from taking the easy — an often unfair — route when issues crop up, just to get back to the other tasks on their checklists.

Read more: Too Busy to Be Fair? The Effect of Workload and Rewards on Managers’ Justice Rule Adherence is featured in the Academy of Management Journal.

About the Author(s)

Vijaya Venkataramani

Vijaya Venkataramani is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology. Professor Venkataramani's research focuses on how informal social relationships and social networks at work influence leadership, creativity, and discretionary employee behaviors in organizations (behaviors that are not stipulated as part of the job, but that still are important for organizational well-being).

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