Are Managers Too Busy to Be Fair? Probably, a Florida International University Study Reveals

Employees often complain that managers don’t treat them fairly, meet with them, listen to their concerns, or update them about decisions. New research from Florida International University’s College of Business (FIU Business) finds that “unfairness” may be less about bosses being biased and more about them lacking time to juggle multiple competing priorities.

Is your boss too busy to be fair? Probably, FIU Business research finds.

“Sometimes they’re just too busy,” said Ravi Gajendran, assistant professor of global leadership and management at FIU Business. “When managers are forced to work under time pressure and have to deal with multiple projects and deliverables, they may often lose their focus on treating employees fairly.”

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The research, published in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, examined data from three studies:

  • Twice-daily email surveys over 10 workdays among 107 U.S.-based managers in the healthcare, media, transportation, finance, retail, and education sectors.
  • A survey among 166 managers, each with two employees, in a variety of industries in India. Over the course of three months, managers answered questions about workload and how their organizations rewarded fairness; employees responded about how fairly they were treated.
  • A one-hour experiment among 239 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory management class at a U.S. public university. Students were made managers and given two tasks – preparing for a client presentation and updating an employee about a situation.

Managers can take the lead in prioritizing fairness by changing up their management routine. Set a daily or weekly schedule to check with employees, equipment, or on the status of ongoing work, the research noted. Establish regular meetings with employees or team meetings where the focus is on explaining managerial as well as corporate decisions.

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However, managers aren’t the only ones responsible when employees feel they are being treated unfairly.

“Companies can encourage bosses to balance technical tasks and fair treatment by rewarding and celebrating managers who act fairly,” Gajendran said. “Doing so clearly signals that fair treatment and engaging with employees are core leadership tasks.”

The studies conducted as part of the research paper revealed that managers prioritizing their actual work responsibilities harmed fairness and also didn’t improve the business’ performance.

“Organizations that reward fairness may see a win-win: busy leaders can act fairly without compromising their performance on core work tasks,” Gajendran added.

The paper was co-authored by Gajendran with Elad Sherf, manager of the Center for Behavioral Research at New York University, and Vijaya Venkataramani, associate professor of management and organization at University of Maryland.

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