Workplace Violence, Organizational Justice, and Wounded Pride

Recently, a Harvard-educated Ph.D. professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville was accused of killing three colleagues and wounding three others during a faculty meeting because she was denied tenure. But why is this topic getting attention here on WorkplacePsychology.Net? We normally don’t think of college and universities as organizations, but they are.

In industrial-organizational psychology, the topic of organizational justice is important because it plays a critical role in workplace violence. The manner in which employees see themselves being treated (fairly or unfairly) by their companies affects how these employees will behave (emotionally and behaviorally) in the work environment. In the case of the accused professor, being denied tenure might have caused her to feel that she was unfairly treated by the university.

There are three types of organizational justice: distributive (perceived fairness in allocation of rewards to employees); procedural (perceived fairness of the process/procedure by which rewards are distributed); and interactional (sensitivity with which employees are treated & degree to which employees feel respected) (Landy & Conte, 2007, citing Colquitt, Colon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng).

Cohen-Charash and Spector (2001) found that regardless of age, gender, race, and education, all people view justice similarly. In their examination of 190 studies totaling 64,757 participants, these researchers discovered that job performance and counterproductive work behaviors were mainly related to procedural justice (the perceived fairness of the process or procedure by which ratings are assigned or rewards are distributed) and that perceived injustice causes negative emotional reactions in the forms of mood and anger. Cohen-Charash and Spector (2001) further predicted that procedural justice will be more important than distributive justice (perceived fairness in allocation of rewards to employees) under certain contexts, especially in situation involving difficult decisions that might hurt or be of great significance to the person affected by them (e.g., layoffs).

Another factor related to workplace violence is a wounded pride (ego threat). Challenging the myth that low self-esteem is an important cause of violence, Baumeister, Smart, & Boden (1996) discovered that violence usually results from egos that felt threatened.

People whose favorable self-conceptions are inflated, uncertain, or unstable may become quite sensitive to unflattering feedback and may react with hostility…[H]ighly sensitive individuals may react with considerable hostility to seemingly minor ego threats (Baumeister et al., 1996, p. 11).

In this context, the college professor might have felt that those individuals who denied her tenure threatened her ego (how dare they deny someone with my intelligence and educational background) and violated procedural justice (it’s unfair how they treated me).

Research says that it takes an individual’s personality, a threatened ego, and a view of injustice to contribute to workplace aggression (Baumeister et al., 1996; Hershcovis et al., 2007). Tragically, the mixture of the professor’s personality, her wounded pride, and her perception that others had treated her unjustly resulted in workplace violence that left three people dead, three others injured, and a community in shock and mourning.

References

Baumeister, R., Smart, L., & Boden, J. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103(1), 5-33. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.103.1.5

Cohen-Charash, Y. & Spector, P.E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86(2), 278–321.

Hershcovis, M. S., Turner, N., Barling, J., Inness, M., LeBlanc, M. M., Arnold, K. A., Dupre, K. E., & Sivanathan, N. (2007). Predicting workplace aggression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1), 228-238.

Landy, F. J. & Conte, J. M. (2007). Work in the 21st century: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology (2nd Ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.