In Brief

Workers who feel personally mistreated or underappreciated during a layoff but received a favorable outcome, such as a large severance package, are still more likely to view the layoff as unfair than those who feel well-treated, according to a recent study in APA's Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 90, No. 3).

The study's authors, graduate student Laurie J. Barclay and Daniel P. Skarlicki, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, and S. Douglas Pugh, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, recruited 173 layoff victims from a Southern California outplacement center. Participants had worked in a range of industries and were laid off because of business restructuring — not poor job performance.

Participants completed a questionnaire that measured whether they felt their company handled the layoffs fairly, gave employees adequate explanation for the layoff, treated them with dignity or provided them with an ultimately favorable outcome, such as a decent severance.

Unlike previous studies on injustice perception in the workplace, Barclay says, the questionnaire also assessed participants' emotions by asking them if they felt ashamed or angry about the layoff, believed the layoff was avoidable or tried to retaliate by, for example, spreading rumors about the boss.

Participants' responses indicated they felt that the ends didn't justify the means. That is, participants who felt disrespected or treated poorly during their layoff — for example, they didn't receive adequate explanation for the layoff when they sought it — felt most angry toward their former employers, even if they received what they considered a fair outcome from the layoff, such as help finding a new job.

The findings run counter to previous research on injustice perception that found people are less likely to care about procedural injustice — for example, inconsistent office rules — when they feel the financial outcome is favorable to them. But that research largely ignored employee's emotions, Barclay says.

The researchers believe a second type of injustice, interpersonal injustice, influences employees' emotions and perceptions of fairness. The findings support this interpretation: A beneficial outcome resulting from the layoff still did not mitigate employees' anger or negative perceptions of employers, the researchers say.

"When people feel disrespected, it doesn't matter what outcome you give them — they are still going to experience anger and hostility," Barclay says.

The moral for managers? Even when participants deem final financial outcomes as fair, managers must ensure that employees also view as equitable both the procedures used to reach those decisions and interpersonal treatment the boss displays while making those decisions.

"It's not enough to have fair procedures [to conduct a layoff] or fair treatment" of employees during it, Barclay explains. "Managers must pay attention to both types of fairness to avoid negative reactions."