procedural justice in business

About a decade ago, a friend and client partner introduced me to the concept of “procedural justice,” and I have been applying it ever since.

I’d like to share the definition of procedural justice from Wikipedia. It’s a bit unwieldy, but stay with me. Skim if you need to.


Procedural justice concerns the fairness and the transparency of the processes by which decisions are made, and may be contrasted with distributive justice (fairness in the distribution of rights or resources), and retributive justice (fairness in the punishment of wrongs). Hearing all parties before a decision is made is one step which would be considered appropriate to be taken in order that a process may then be characterised as procedurally fair. Some theories of procedural justice hold that fair procedure leads to equitable outcomes, even if the requirements of distributive or restorative justice are not met. It has been suggested that this is the outcome of the higher quality interpersonal interactions often found in the procedural justice process, which has shown to be stronger in affecting the perception of fairness during conflict resolution.

I know, this definition feels like something being explained by a lawyer, so let me give you a pragmatic example to make it relevant to the day-to-day efforts of a service-based business.

Consider this situation faced by a manager of an office: It’s Friday afternoon when the manager learns that a key account is in jeopardy and the only way to save it is for the team to come in over the weekend to make sure deliverables are completed before Monday.

Procedurally unjust action:
Manager asks everyone to join an emergency meeting, then walks into the conference room and says, “Everyone has to come in and work this weekend. Cancel your plans and be here at 8 a.m. sharp tomorrow.” Manager walks out of the office. Team commences marathon gripe session that lasts through the weekend and into the next week.

Procedurally just action:
Manager asks everyone to join an emergency meeting to discuss a very important account. Before the meeting, she meets with two key influencers, John and Sandy, and explains the situation and the need to rally the team to save the account. John and Sandy are fired up and ready to be there. Then the manager walks into the conference room and says, “I have just learned that our most important account is in jeopardy. There is a deliverable that must be finished by Monday morning or we could lose the account for good. I know that everyone probably has plans this weekend and you have all been working hard, but I need to ask for a team collaboration over the weekend to make sure we keep our business strong. I had a chance to connect with John and Sandy and they have both agreed to join me to get the work done. I need to ask that everyone who can join us does so. I will have lunch and snacks brought in so we can focus together on getting the work done and wrap it up as soon as possible. For anyone who can come in, you can take comp days when it fits with your workload. Anyone who cannot join us, please see me directly after this meeting so your tasks can be delegated to someone else.” Manager stays after meeting to answer any questions. Team rallies and the account is saved.

As you can see, applied procedural justice is not just policy and procedure; it’s the process in which we go about dealing with specific situations.

Here is another situation related to a difficult client conversation that will feel familiar to many of you.

Consider a situation in which a services team is just wrapping up a project with a client. The client is happy and has requested the team take on a second project of a similar scope. The project team lead reports that the client had some challenges providing their review feedback in a timely fashion, which caused challenges on the first project. During the project, the team lead had mentioned a few times that the client partner’s performance had caused setbacks for the team, but no formal change order or complaint was shared with the client. However, the team lead was frustrated, as was the team.

Procedurally unjust action:
The project team lead, while still being frustrated by the client partner’s performance, scopes the next project, anticipating the client partner will perform the same way. He builds in new assumptions and additional work effort, and then adds a little more on top of that… well, just in case. He then sends off the statement of work (SOW) to the client partner and goes out on a two-day vacation. The client partner gets the SOW, compares it to the last project, and thinks, “What the…?” She calls the team lead, who can’t be reached for several days, causing the client partner to wonder if she’s picked the right vendor team after all.

Procedurally just action:
The project team lead, knowing the team is frustrated, collaborates closely with a few colleagues to scope the new project in a way that is fair for all parties. Once he has a sense that the new project will take longer or cost more, he has an informal conversation with the client partner. He lets her know that the team had incurred additional expenses on the previous project due to the client partner’s performance. The client partner is given an opportunity to explain how things will be different on the new project or agree that it is reasonable, because the new project would present the same constraints that caused the previous challenges. The team lead formalizes the agreement in the SOW and sets up a meeting to address any concerns. The team lead presents the new agreement to the project team so they know that the challenges they struggled with have been addressed. Project 2 kicks off.

While there are exceptions to the rule, most of us have a sense of fairness. It is this sense of fairness and the commitment to finding mutually beneficial agreements that create trust that can be drawn upon in difficult situations.

At SweetRush, we try very hard to apply procedural justice to conflicts involving employees, contract negotiations, production pushes, price negotiations, and more. And with some exceptions, taking the lead on creating a procedurally just situation has built stronger relationships. It puts everyone on the same side of the table looking for a mutually fair outcome, which strengthens the idea that we are all in it together to create a successful experience and project outcome.