Have you ever considered how two people's perceptions of a workplace can be entirely different?
While Jane perceives the workplace as open and inclusive, John in the next office feels that he is never heard, and he notices that Fatima, in particular, is not included.
How can the same workplace be perceived so differently?
Researcher Elisabeth Enoksen wondered about this. In fact, she wondered about this so much that she did her doctoral thesis in change management at the University of Stavanger on how employees experience justice in the workplace.
“In a few years, most workplaces will be multicultural. This will mean new challenges for managers. They will have to consider different needs and wishes and how to best form teams to get optimal results”, says Enoksen.
Justice is important
Previous research has established that it is important for employees to experience the workplace as just. It means a lot for employees’ physical and mental well-being, job satisfaction, work performance and sense of belonging.
But what is it that affects the perception of justice? What individual differences are at play here? Research does not say much about this — at least not until now.
Power made an impact
Enoksen distributed questionnaires to employees at a mental healthcare clinic in Norway and asked them about their perceptions of the working environment and justice in the workplace. They were then tested on ten different personal values.
Two values—one of which was power—stood out.
“The results showed that those who emphasized power as a value perceived the workplace as most just”, says Enoksen.
She believes that this can be explained based on the following reasoning:
The goal for people seeking power is to gain influence, control, social status and prestige. It is natural for such people to demand what they consider to be their rightful place. They will try to gain influence within processes and get resources for themselves. They will feel that they are heard and taken seriously and, therefore, perceive the situation as just.
Enoksen has not just looked at how one perceives justice in relation to oneself but also perceptions of how others are treated in the workplace. In particular, she examined how immigrants’ situations were perceived.
“Integration of immigrants is important and will be essential for a healthy working life in the coming years. Few studies on organisational justice have looked specifically at unjust treatment of specific disadvantages groups such as ethnic minorities”, says Enoksen.
Those who got a high score on power and felt fairly treated perceived less discrimination against immigrants in the workplace.
“The findings show that one's personal perception of justice in the workplace influences how unjust treatment of others is perceived. In other words, we interpret others’ situations based on our own experience”, says Enoksen.
The second value that stood out was diametrically opposed to power, namely universalism. The simplest way to describe universalism is well-being for everyone. Someone who gets a high score for this value is tolerant and understanding.
It was no surprise that such people perceived most discrimination against immigrants.
“People who appreciate this value are concerned for the welfare of everyone, not just the welfare of those closest to them but also the welfare of those outside their inner circle. This is the value with the highest social focus, says Enoksen.
Norwegian working life is known for having a flat organisational structure. Employees often have direct contact with the management and are free to express their opinions. This is not something that people from other cultures may be used to.
In situations where it would be natural for ethnic Norwegians to speak up, it could be unthinkable for some immigrants to do likewise.
“Those who speak up have a greater chance of being included in different processes and for having their suggestions heard and accepted. Meanwhile, the concerns of others are not put forward as they are not used to having the same influence.
The fact that opinions and input are not voiced is a loss in itself. At the same time, this increases the risk of employees feeling that they are being treated unjustly”, says Enoksen.
Right to a voice
She believes that we must ask ourselves: Whose voices are we not hearing? In a multicultural workplace, differences can be reinforced if the manager is not aware of them.
“A manager must seek to give a voice also to those who feel that they are not entitled to one.”
Discrimination is destructive in the workplace. It is not just damaging for the person involved; it also has a negative effect on others who see it happening.
Why are these findings important?
We are living in an age that demands efficiency and where companies are expected to deliver results while at the same time cutting costs. Continual change processes require managers who see their employees.
Enoksen hopes that her study can help managers to have a better understanding of group dynamics. This will make it easier to meet employees' different needs both during a change process and in everyday life.
“People don’t wear their values on their sleeve. Workplaces will benefit from using tools that chart their employees’ personal values”.
She adds that charting these values does not have to be very extensive or time consuming. Furthermore, the idea behind this is not to put labels on people. Increasing awareness of their own values among managers and employees and how this affects the perception of justice, among other things, could lead to better cooperation.
Enoksen emphasises that diversity in the workplace is important. All workplaces benefit from having people with different personal values and where employees complement each other.
“But in a cultural diverse workplace, the value universalism is especially important due to its strong focus on inclusion of all people”, says Enoksen.
Text: Benedicte Pentz
Elisabeth Enoksen: A just workplace. The influence of personal values on organizational justice and perceived discrimination against immigrants.
Doctoral thesis, the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Stavanger, 2016.