Research profile: Experiencing workplace unfairness? Put it in writing.


Professor Skarlicki explores how therapeutic writing can improve employee well being and productivity.

Professor Skarlicki

Have you ever experienced unfairness in the workplace? If so, you’re not alone. Most employees have experienced some type of unfairness – whether it was being overlooked for a promotion, being subjected to unfair procedures, failing to receive an explanation for a decision, or being treated with a lack of dignity and respect. Unfortunately, it’s a pervasive phenomenon in many organizations.

What most organizations don’t realize is the profound impact that experiencing unfairness can have on employees. Although it is commonly recognized that employees who feel treated unfairly can have lower morale and decreased productivity (not to mention an increased tendency to retaliate), what is often overlooked are the effects of unfairness on employees’ physical and psychological health. Unfair treatment has been associated with increased anxiety, insomnia, depression, and exhaustion.

Prof. Skarlicki, Sauder’s Edgar Kaiser Professor of Organizational Behavior, studies how to cope with unfair workplace experiences and mitigate negative consequences. Together with colleague Professor Laurie Barclay, a former Sauder PhDnow at Laurier University, he explored the effectiveness of "expressive writing" as a way to help employees recover from unfairness. Their results were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Expressive writing is a technique developed in the fields of clinical and health psychology to encourage individuals to write about traumatic incidences. Barclay and Skarlicki applied the technique to measure its effectiveness in treating those who have experienced to workplace unfairness.

The team conducted a study that asked participants to write down an example of an unfair workplace experience for 20 minutes a day for four days. Results indicated that after the intervention, participants reported higher psychological wellbeing, fewer intentions to retaliate, and higher levels of personal resolution.

“We think that writing about one’s emotions and thoughts is effective because participants get to let off steam, release these negative emotions, and engage in sense-making,” suggests Skarlicki. “Individuals are able to attach meaning and gain insights into the experience and ultimately put the experience behind them.”

This research has important implications for human resource professionals who assist organizations in retaining good employees.

View Professor Skarlicki's profile for more information about his research.