Disagreeing on what is fair in the workplace, and what we can do about


In this blog, Dr Rasim Kurdoglu, who successfully defended his doctoral thesis on 17th September 2018, discusses his research on establishing the truthfulness of ‘managerial legitimacy’ arguments, and how to adjudicate in controversial cases of employees’ claims of unfairness.


It is not uncommon to see managers who are accused of unfair decisions by their subordinates. For instance, there can be disputes between managers and their subordinates on pay rises, promotions, allocation of workload, physical conditions, redundancies, etc. In such disputes, managers can argue that they are playing by the ‘rules of the game’, such that their decision should be socially acceptable, despite being contrary to the affected employee’s perception of fairness. In other words, managers can argue that they are using their authority legitimately which should be respected by outsiders.


The view of outsiders is important as they can show social disapproval and put pressure on the manager. Outsiders may even intervene in the situation to protect the employee side as the weaker party. However, once a manager argues for the legitimacy of his or her decision, unfairness accusations of employees can easily be dismissed as just moaning. Any interference would be then illegitimate.


While managers can justify their decisions by alluding to the ‘rules of the game’, both formal rules of action as well as informal cultural rules are open to various interpretations leading to disagreements on what is acceptable or not. It is then important to analyse the competing arguments. First, one should distinguish whether the disagreement is a matter of personal value differences between the disputant manager and his or her employee, or whether there is an arbitrary application of power by the manager. If the disagreement simply stems from differences in personal values that are both socially permissible, then the discretion of manager should be respected. However, if the managerial justification is unreasonable and used simply to disguise irrational sources of action, such as prejudices, gut feelings, or disguised interests like favouritism and nepotism, then the managerial decision should be condemned. In this respect, the truthfulness of the managerial legitimacy argument should be scrutinized when there are concerns of an abuse of power.


In a recent paper, I outline how to investigate the truthfulness of managerial legitimation arguments, and how to adjudicate in controversial cases of employees’ unfairness claims. By drawing on Perelman and Olbrechts‐Tyteca’s argumentation theory, my paper elucidates how to dissect competing claims of fairness. As a crude summary, the proposed framework helps to distinguish facts, truths and socially accepted presumptions from value preferences within an argument. It also helps to show how a person reasons to construct his or her idea. In this respect, argumentation theory is useful for categorizing arguments based on their sources as well as on their construction methods. In my paper, I present several hypothetical examples to show how the proposed framework can be utilized as a research tool. It can be useful for researchers as well as for practitioners who are dealing with workplace conflicts.


As explained in my publication, what is called ‘an argument’ is an imperfect but practical use of reasoning. Arguing is not a mathematical-geometrical reasoning process in which there are perfect logical links between our assertions. Arguing is also different than demonstrating since a demonstration shows a self-evident truth that can be unanimously observed. Basically, we argue to solve our problems when we cannot resort to perfections of mathematical-deductive reasoning or demonstration. When we use argument, we inevitably use our values to support our claims on what is best thing to do. That’s why, arguing is prone to disagreements. However, arguing is beneficial as it still enables us to use our reasoning, despite being entangled with values, and despite being not able to produce indisputable conclusions as in the case of deductive reasoning.


By argumentation, we can at least consciously decide on which values we want to endorse, rather than making arbitrary or irrational decisions. However, argumentation does not eliminate the personal responsibility of decision making as it does not resolve which values we should prefer. We can use social cues to help our decisions but social value preferences are open to political contestation. Moreover, the modern societies are built on value plurality. Yet, at least it is relatively easy to agree on which values or which sorts of action are surely unacceptable, therefore illegitimate. In this vein, it is undeniable that the idea of justice is directly incompatible with arbitrary or irrational pursuits of the powerful. It is likewise important to establish the truthfulness of managerial legitimacy claims so that we can decide whether to respect the authority of the manager in question or to condemn him or her.


When a managerial legitimation argument is detected as untruthful, it is also useful to analyse how institutions permit such managerial expediencies. An institutional check can help us understand the established incentives and constraints that are permitting or encouraging those managerial actions. The argumentation analysis method presented in my publication is an appropriate starting point to deal with unfairness concerns in organizations from this perspective as well.



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