Study: Busy managers more likely to treat employees unfairly

When the boss is overworked, their employees’ needs and wants drop to the bottom of the to-do list, a new study in the Academy of Management Journal found. Concerned employees find a boss who is too busy to meet with them, one who cannot be bothered to explain day-to-day decisions.

If you’re the employee of one of these bosses, you may think they are acting insensitively out of malice. ‘Why won’t my boss make time for me?’ you huff. ‘Why can’t they explain what’s happening?’ But the researchers found that these managers are just too busy to act fairly towards employees.

Overworked managers prioritize getting things done for the company over being fair

Across three studies, the researchers came to one main conclusion: as managers’ workloads increase, they are more likely to prioritize tasks that support the organization at the expense of overlooking fairness towards employees. Overworked managers let their just principles drop away when they are facing the pressures of deadlines.

The researchers defined fairness by the time that managers dedicated to making their employees feel heard. No matter how busy they are, a fair boss treats you with dignity and respect. Fair bosses make decisions that they apply consistently to everyone. They cannot play favorites. If you have a boss who schedules time to meet with every employee, you have a fair boss. If you have a boss who explains the logic and rationale behind difficult decisions to you, she’s a fair boss. If your boss never acknowledges your contributions, you have an unfair boss.

Employers may scoff and see employees feeling slighted as a justified cost in the name of doing business. But the researchers found that focusing on technical tasks did not even improve companies’ bottom-lines. “Prioritizing technical work tasks harmed fairness, but did not improve technical performance,” the researchers found.

If you have a heavy workload, as many of us do, don’t worry — you are not automatically going to be an unfair jerk to your employees. The researchers found that when managers worked in environments that rewarded and recognized fair management, they began to prioritize it too. Google, for example, has a Great Manager Award. Winners of this award consistently are known for expressing interest and concern for their employees’ continued success. When you work in an environment that sees happy employees as a core leadership task, then management will reflect this.