Blue Line


October 1, 2012
By Dorothy Cotton

841 words – MR

“Procedural justice” not just another pretty phrase

by Dorothy Cotton

I was a little surprised to run into a friend who normally works during the day at a shopping mall at 2 PM on a Tuesday. He looked a little sheepish, then a tad angry when I asked if he had taken the day off. He had phoned in sick because his workplace, like most, does not offer the option of phoning in “pissed off.”


Over coffee he explained that he accidentally discovered a co-worker had suddenly gotten a new, very cool position in the company which came with some desirable perks like international travel and flexible hours. “The first I heard of this job, Dave already had it! How come no one else had a chance at it?”

I was surprised to see my friend angry about this as (1) he does not like to travel and (2) Dave is his best friend, but he wasn’t mad that Dave had gotten the job. It was HOW he got it that made him see red. Apparently it was some kind of back-room-under-the-table decision. Indeed, this is an example of procedural justice in action – or perhaps more accurately, a lack of procedural justice.

The term refers to the notion that a process has to be fair and transparent or people get pissed off. According to the (Wikipedia), “Procedural justice is the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and allocate resources.” It is not so much about how things end up, it’s about how they got to wherever they got to.

When you look at the literature on job stress and satisfaction, people who perceive their employers to be fair are happier at work – even if things do not necessarily go their way. I note that my friend in the shopping mall was not even remotely interested in Dave’s new job – and readily admits he would not have been a serious competitor had there been a competition, but the apparently closed and unfair process made him furious all the same. It’s about the process, not the outcome.

There has been a significant amount of work done on the role of procedural justice in the courts and criminal justice system in general – see, for example. It makes the point that people are more likely to comply with court demands and follow laws in the future when they perceive the legal process to be fair. This, of course, can be easier said than done. If you think the judge was out to get you and the jury were morons, you may not feel your case has been handled the way it should have been. Part of procedural justice seems to involve simply “playing nice” on the part of court personnel.

Procedural justice is important in policing as well. (If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing this.) A while back, I wrote a column about a BC study looking at what people with mental illnesses thought about their interactions with police. People were generally as concerned about the way they were treated as the outcome of the interaction. Even when they were taken to the hospital against their wishes, the level of satisfaction with police definitely depended on HOW they were treated rather than the action taken. If people felt like someone at least listened to their side of the story, treated them with respect and explained to them what was going on…

These observations are not unique to people with mental illnesses. The same principle applies to all people, really. If you are stopped for a traffic violation because you were driving like an idiot, you might reflect on how you drive – but if you think you were stopped because you are an old man wearing a hat, then you’re likely to not only be indignant about being stopped but less likely to change your driving behaviour. (You might however consider taking off your hat, not that that will help any.)

Procedural justice is also closely related to the public’s perception of police legitimacy. Have a look at:

The authors of this article point out that procedural justice is one of the cornerstones for the public’s assessment of legitimacy – and that perceptions of police legitimacy have more effect on a person’s decision to break the law than their perception of the risk of being caught or punished. In the police business, procedural justice involves active listening, respect, giving people an opportunity to express their side of things and expressing things clearly. In the workplace, it means being open about policies and procedures, treating people fairly and following the rules, allowing differences of opinions and having a method for dealing with disagreements.

It’s kind of like high school math. Remember how some teachers made you “show your work” when you solved problems – and gave you partial credit if you solved the problem the right way even if you ended up with the wrong answer? Getting the method right is the procedural justice part.