Management for the masses: Monkey see, monkey do

Indiana University Kelley School of Business  8.31.10In 2003, zoologists found capuchin monkeys responded to perceived pay inequity by throwing cucumbers.  The monkeys were perfectly happy when everyone playing a reward game (“You give me a stone, I give you a treat”) received the same reward of cucumbers.  But when one of the monkeys started getting grapes for playing the same game, the other capuchins were quite unhappy.  Cucumbers were a fine reward…until they saw someone else get something better.

While your employees likely won’t throw food, chances are they react psychologically much the same way to perceived unfairness.  Like it or not, your workers compare their inputs (the amount of work they do) and rewards (the amount of compensation and perks they receive) to others in their work group and across the company.  If employees perceive they are being treated unfairly, they are likely to either a) minimize their work inputs – in other words, do less – or b) look for ways to get more reward.  Rewards can be increased by making unauthorized use of company resources – such as using more work time for personal business, or even engaging in employee theft.

So what can you do to ensure employees perceive fair treatment?  There are two things to consider: the outcomes workers receive, and the procedures used to determine those outcomes.  As the monkeys demonstrate, feelings of “It’s not fair!” are dramatic, basic and heartfelt.  The good news is that you can manage employee perceptions of equity in work rewards.  So think about:

  1. Publicize the rules and decision-making criteria. When people know what rewards to expect, for themselves and for others, they relax a bit.  Uncertainty, on the other hand, makes them more observant and vigilant.
  2. Minimize your own bias.  People’s perceptions of justice are higher when they see managers applying rules uniformly.
  3. Share your decision-making criteria.  People usually feel less inequity when they have a full explanation for how rules are made and applied.

4) Treat employee concerns with respect.  Even when workers don’t get everything they want, they are less likely to “act out” when their questions are answered fully and considerately.

Citation: Miller, D. T. (2001).  Disrespect and the experience of injustice.  Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 527-553.

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