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Why Leaders Treat People Unfairly

Why your boss doesn’t seem to care.

One of the biggest reasons people complain about, and leave their jobs, is unfair treatment—being rewarded less than other employees, being passed over for promotion, and not being recognized for the good work they are doing. This leads to dissatisfaction which can affect employee performance, attendance, and turnover. Why is there such unfair treatment in the workplace?

1. The leader lacks empathy.

Many leaders are simply out-of-touch with their employees’ needs and feelings. Our research shows that as leaders get higher in the chain of command, their sensitivity to their employees tends to decrease. Your boss may simply be unaware that you are feeling mistreated.

2. Leaders are prone to biases.

Leaders may be unaware that they hold certain biases that unfairly favor certain employees over others—similarity biases (favoring others who are ‘like me’), halo effects (giving preference to someone because they possess one prominent outstanding quality), and the like. In addition, bosses may reward behaviors that are not performance related (e.g., rewarding someone who self-promotes and ignoring the people who are really carrying the workload).

3. Leaders are not required to be fair.

If organizations don’t emphasize fair treatment, leaders feel free to do whatever they want, and they don’t suffer as long as bottom-line performance is there. Thus, leaders can reward their friends, or those who are more visible, and ignore others.

4. The leader is simply clueless.

Many times bosses simply don’t realize that they are being unfair and playing favorites. Of course, being clueless is no excuse.

5. Employees may perceive unfair treatment when there really is none.

All too often, employees may believe that they are being treated unfairly, but they really are not. In organizations where pay and promotion scales are kept secret, employees may believe that others are being paid more or are given preferential treatment, but that may not be the case.

So, what are the rules for leaders to ensure that they are being fair (and communicating that)?

  • Be responsive to employee needs and concerns. Check in regularly with employees to understand their perspectives.
  • Strive to be fair and objective. Be aware of your own potential biases, and make reward procedures and scales clear.
  • Create an organizational culture that emphasizes fairness and equitable treatment.
  • Be transparent and honest. Let employees know why and how rewards are distributed and why there may be limitations to those payoffs.​


Brockner, J. (2006). Why it’s so hard to be fair. Harvard Business Review, 84, 122-129.

Cropanzano, R., Bowen, D.E., & Gilliland, S.W. (2007). The management of organizational justice. Academy of Management Perspectives, 21, 34-48.