Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 136, Issue 1, pp 43–55 | Cite as

Delivering Bad News: How Procedural Unfairness Affects Messengers’ Distancing and Refusals

  • James J. Lavelle
  • Robert Folger
  • Jennifer G. Manegold


Drawing from a social predicament and identity management framework, we argue that procedural unfairness on the part of decision makers places messengers in a dilemma where they attempt to protect their professional image or legitimacy by engaging in refusals (e.g., curbing explanations) and exhibiting distancing behaviors (e.g., minimizing contact with victims) when delivering bad news. Such behaviors however, violate key tenets of fair interpersonal treatment. The results of two experiments supported our hypotheses in samples of experienced managers. Specifically, we found that levels of messengers’ distancing and refusals were greater when the procedures used by decision makers were unfair rather than fair. Additionally, messengers’ perceptions of a predicament (honesty versus disclosure) mediated these relationships. Implications and future research directions regarding the ethical delivery of bad news in the workplace are discussed.


Delivering bad news Distancing behavior Refusals Honesty predicament Organizational justice 


  1. Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bies, R. J. (2005). Are procedural justice and interactional justice conceptually distinct? In J. Greenberg & J. A. Colquitt (Eds.), Handbook of organizational justice (pp. 469–498). Newark, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  3. Bies, R. J. (2013). The delivery of bad news in organizations: A framework for analysis. Journal of Management, 39, 136–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bies, R. J., & Moag, J. F. (1986). Interactional justice: The communication criteria of fairness. In R. J. Lewicki, B. H. Sheppard, & M. H. Bazerman (Eds.), Research on negotiation in organizations (Vol. 1, pp. 85–112). Greenwich: JAI Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bobocel, D. R., & Zdaniuk, A. (2005). How can explanations be used to foster organizational justice? In J. Greenberg & J. A. Colquitt (Eds.), Handbook of organizational justice (pp. 469–498). Newark, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  6. Brockner, J. (1994). Perceived fairness and survivors reactions to layoffs, or how downsizing organizations can do well by doing good. Social Justice Research, 7, 345–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brockner, J., Grover, S., Reed, T., DeWitt, R., & O’Malley, M. (1987). Survivors’ reactions to layoffs: We get by with a little help from our friends. Administrative Science Quarterly, 37, 241–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Colquitt, J. A. (2001). On the dimensionality of organizational justice: A construct validation of a measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 356–400.Google Scholar
  9. Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O. L. H., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 425–445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cropanzano, R., Byrne, Z. S., Bobocel, D. R., & Rupp, D. E. (2001). Moral virtues, fairness heuristics, social entities, and other denizens of organizational justice. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58, 164–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Feldman, D., & Weitz, B. (1991). From the invisible hand to the gladhand: Understanding a careerist orientation to work. Human Resource Management, 30, 237–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Folger, R., & Cropanzano, R. (1998). Organizational justice and human resource management. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  13. Folger, R., & Pugh, S. D. (2002). The just world and Winston Churchill: An approach/avoidance conflict about psychological distance when harming victims. In M. Ross & D. T. Miller (Eds.), The justice motive in everyday life (pp. 168–186). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Folger, R., & Skarlicki, D. P. (1998). When tough times make tough bosses: Managerial distancing as a function of layoff blame. Academy of Management Journal, 41, 79–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Folger, R., & Skarlicki, D. (2001). Fairness as a dependent variable: Why tough times can lead to bad management. In R. Cropanzano (Ed.), Justice in the workplace: From theory to practice (Vol. 2). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  16. Gilliland, S. W., Groth, M., Baker, R. C, I. V., Dew, A. F., Polly, L. M., & Langdon, J. C. (2001). Improving applicants’ reactions to rejection letters: An application of fairness theory. Personnel Psychology, 54, 669–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  18. Gonzales, M. H., Manning, D. J., & Haugen, J. A. (1992). Explaining our sins: Factors influencing offender accounts and anticipated victim reactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 958–971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Greenberg, J. (1990). Employee theft as a reaction to underpayment inequity: The hidden cost of pay cuts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75, 561–568.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Greenberg, J. (1993). Stealing in the name of justice: Informational and interpersonal moderators of theft reactions to underpayment inequity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 54, 81–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hodgins, H. S., Liebeskind, E., & Schwartz, W. (1996). Getting out of hot water: Facework in social predicaments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 300–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jacobs, K. (1996, September 13). Brutal firings can backfire, ending in court. The Wall Street Journal, p. B1, Column 3.Google Scholar
  23. Konovsky, M. A., & Folger, R. (1991). The effects of procedures, social accounts, and benefits level on victims’ reactions to layoffs. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 21, 630–650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Landy, H. (2006, August 30). Employees learn of layoffs via e-mails. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, p. C2.Google Scholar
  25. Lavelle, J. J., Rupp, D. E., & Brockner, J. (2007). Taking a multifoci approach to the study of justice, social exchange, and citizenship behavior: The target similarity model. Journal of Management, 3, 841–866.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and two-component model. Psychological Bulletin, 107, 34–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Leventhal, G. S. (1980). What should be done equity theory? New approaches to the study of fairness in social relationships. In K. Gergen, M. Greenberg, & R. Willis (Eds.), Social exchange: Advances in theory and research (pp. 27–55). New York, NY: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lind, E. A., & Tyler, T. (1988). The social psychology of procedural justice. New York: Plenum.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Moss, S. E., & Martinko, M. J. (1998). The effects of performance attributions and outcome dependence on leader feedback following poor subordinate performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 19, 259–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Roberts, L. M. (2005). Changing faces: Professional image construction in diverse organizational settings. Academy of Management Review, 30(4), 685–711.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rupp, D. E., & Cropanzano, R. (2002). The mediating effects of social exchange relationships in predicting workplace outcomes from multifoci organizational justice. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 89, 925–946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Shaw, J. C., Wild, E., & Colquitt, J. A. (2003). To justify or excuse?: A meta-analytic review of the effects of explanation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 444–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sitkin, S. B., & Bies, R. J. (1993). The legalistic organization: Definitions, dimensions, and dilemmas. Organization Science, 4, 345–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sitkin, S. B., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Reed, G. L. (1993). Prescriptions for justice: Using social accounts to legitimate the exercise of professional control. Social Justice Research, 6, 87–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Smither, J. W., Reilly, R. R., Millsap, R. E., Pearlman, K., & Stoffey, R. W. (1993). Applicant reactions to selection procedures. Personnel Psychology, 46, 49–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sunshine, J., & Tyler, T. R. (2003). The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law and Society Review, 37, 555–589.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Tyler, T. R., & De Cremer, D. (2005). Process-based leadership: Fair procedures and reactions to organizational change. Leadership Quarterly, 16, 529–545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Van den Bos, K. (2001). Fundamental research by means of laboratory experiments is essential for a better understanding of organizational justice. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58, 254–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Watson, G., & Sheikh, F. (2008). Normative self-interest or moral hypocrisy? The importance of context. Journal of Business Ethics, 77(3), 259–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • James J. Lavelle
    • 1
  • Robert Folger
    • 2
  • Jennifer G. Manegold
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of ManagementUniversity of Texas, ArlingtonArlingtonUSA
  2. 2.Department of ManagementUniversity of Central FloridaOrlandoUSA

Personalised recommendations