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Fairness and unfairness in projects

About the research and why it is important

“Life is not fair, get used to it” – A quote often attributed to Bill Gates, but originally by Charles J. Sykes, which we believe should be challenged.

Life should not be about getting used to unfairness, but about how we can create an environment that provides a fairer experience for everyone. The motivation for this is not only about being good and decent humans, but also about the negative impact unfair treatment has on individuals, organisations and projects.

This study, conducted by Christine Unterhitzenberger and Kate Lawrence (both University of Leeds), explores what individuals perceive as fair or unfair treatment in projects, which factors influence their perceptions and subsequent behaviours and how these impact individuals, organisations and projects.

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How to cite this research
Unterhitzenberger, C. & Lawrence, K. (2022). Fairness and Unfairness in Projects. Association for Project Management.

Intended audience

This research will primarily be of interest to project organisations, project professionals as well as project associations who wish to understand and support this topic. The report is also likely to be of interest to academics and students with a growing interest in ethics and professionalism along with raising awareness to project leaders who may be able to elicit change in their organisation.

How was the research undertaken? 

The research was undertaken via a qualitative multi-method approach consisting of a combination of diary method and interviews with a sample of ten project professionals.

What did we discover?

We found that individuals perceive fairness in projects along the three dimensions of organisational justice:

  • Distributive justice which is concerned with the perception of fairness regarding the distribution of resources and rewards
  • Procedural justice which focused on the fairness of policies, procedures, processes, rules, regulations, standards and systems which are established in an organisation or project
  • Interactional justice which relates to interpersonal treatment and informational exchange.

We also identified four factors which influence how individuals makes justice judgements about their treatment by an individual or organisation. These factors are:

  1. the source of the treatment (internal vs external to the own organisation)
  2. the temporality and frequency of the treatment
  3. the authority and accountability individuals hold
  4. the adoption of reflective practices.

In terms of the impact of fair treatment we determined positive effects on ways of working, project relationships and health and wellbeing. In contrast to this, unfair treatment caused detrimental effects on these issues.


Profession: Raising awareness - Across the profession, the awareness of the impact of fair and unfair treatment on individuals, organisations and projects needs to be raised. Fair and unfair treatment does not currently receive sufficient attention within our profession with no mentions of it in any body of knowledge or other publications by professional bodies. A first step to raising awareness is the publication of this research report, which should be followed up by appropriate dissemination activities such as webinars and articles along with further studies to develop an even better understanding of fair and unfair treatment in projects, e.g., how the perceptions of fair-ness impact on the health and wellbeing of project professionals or test quantitatively how sources, experiences and other factors influence justice perceptions in projects. 

Organisations: Building skills and capabilities - Organisations need to invest in building the skills and capabilities of project managers and project team members in how organisational justice can be adopted in projects. This requires training leaders and senior project professionals in the application of justice in projects and embedding fair principles and procedures in project team working and enabling individuals to implement fair process and procedures within their own authority. Organisations will need to have an open and transparent culture which provides a psychologically safe environment for individuals to speak up. Appropriate governance arrangements such as fair project governance should also be implemented and an appropriate balance of authority and accountability across project roles and clarity over responsibilities should be considered. Organisations also need to ensure that learning from past organisational injustice is captured, understood and not repeated.

Individuals: Taking responsibility – project professionals need to be aware of the impact their actions have on subordinates, contractors, peers and project team members. However, previous research has shown that awareness is insufficient in this context, as it often varies how fairly a source perceives their treatment of others and how fair the receiving individual perceives the treatment. This means sources need to actively seek feedback from individuals if their actions are following justice rules and hence if they are improving justice perceptions in projects. These can be simple considerations of how their treatment could add excessive workload/stress to others, or how something that is ‘important’ for one team member is not ‘urgent’ for another team member, or how able team members are to voice their opinions and influence the project.  Every individual working in projects can make a difference in creating a fair and equitable working environment for the other project team members. However, this effort should not stop at the individual level and needs to be supported by organisations working on projects, ranging from client to contractor to supply chain organisations and also requires the commitment from thought leaders in the profession.

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