Organizational justice and social workers' intentions to leave agency positions.

Author:Kim, Tae Kuen

The authors investigated the impact of organizational justice on social workers' intention to leave Korean social service agencies. Specifically, this study concentrated on the moderating effect of organizational justice on the relationship between burnout and intention to leave. The authors surveyed 218 front-line social workers from 51 social welfare service centers in Korea. Data were collected from a sample of social workers indentified through a multistage cluster sampling process. The authors used a linear mixed model to analyze the multilevel data structure. This study had three major findings. First, higher levels of burnout of individual social workers corresponded to increased intention to leave.

Second, higher levels of organizational justice of social welfare service centers corresponded to decreased intention to leave. Finally, and most important, the organizational justice of social welfare service centers moderated the impact of burnout on individual social workers' intention to leave. On the basis of these results, the authors discuss the importance of organizational justice to social service agencies.

KEY WORDS: burnout; intention to leave; moderating effect; organizational justice


Within a human service agency, the primary workforce is social workers (Sung, 1993). Frequent turnover among social workers causes practical problems for social work agencies in terms of service discontinuance and loss of skilled practitioners (Carmeli & Weisberg, 2006; Loewenberg, 1979). Given the high costs of social worker turnover, finding effective strategies to reduce turnover rates has been a great concern and challenge in social work settings (Abu-Bader, 2000; Curry, McCarragher, & Dellmann-Jenkins, 2005; Vandervort, Pott Gozalez, & Coulborn Failer, 2008). Previous literature has consistently demonstrated that intention to leave is one of the strongest predictors and an immediate precursor of social worker turnover (Harrington, Bean, Pintello, & Mathew, 2001; Vandervort et al., 2008). A number of social work administrators and professionals have attempted to determine the factors that affect social workers' intention to leave social service agencies (Chiu & Lai, 1997; Ulrish et al., 2007). Several studies have revealed associations between the psychological and demographic characteristics of individual social workers and their intention to leave (Drake & Yamada, 1996; Harrington et al., 2001). Generally, the results of these studies have determined that burnout of social workers significantly increased their intention to leave (Drake & Yamada, 1996; Harrington et al., 2001). These studies, however, have focused primarily on individual factors of social workers as the predictors of intention to leave, ignoring the influence of the social-environmental context of social work agencies.

Currently, organizational theory emphasizes the leverage effect of organizational factors on intention to leave among organizational members (Acker, 2004; DePanfilis & Zlotnik, 2008). As George and Jones (1996) pointed out, the impact of individual factors on turnover may be moderated by other organizational factors, such as a supportive organizational climate. Current organizational research has shown increasing interest in organizational justice as a potential factor that creates benefits for both organizations and their individual members (Judge & Colquitt, 2004; Lain, Schaubroeck, & Aryee, 2002). Other fields--including education, public administration, and business--have investigated the dynamic between organizational justice and the intention to leave or turnover rates among organizational members. Prior studies conducted in these fields have indicated that enhancing organizational justice is an efficient strategy to decrease intention to leave or reduce turnover rates and, therefore, increase service quality and clients' satisfaction (DeConinck & Bachmann, 2005; Foley, Ngo, & Wong, 2005; Kickul, Lester, & Finkl, 2002; Parker & Kohlmeyer, 2005). However, limited research has examined the role of organizational justice in intention to leave social work settings. To fill this gap, this study investigated the impact of organizational justice on the intention of social workers to leave a social service center. In particular, this study concentrated on the moderating effect of organizational justice on the relationship between burnout, one of the most important individual factors, and intention to leave as well as the main effect of organizational justice on intention to leave.


Organizational justice refers to the subjective perception of organizational members about fairness in the allocation of resources and rewards or punishments made by a given organization (Chen, Lin, Tung, & Ko, 2008). Organizational justice is regarded as a multidimensional construct (Scholl, Copper, & McKenny, 1987). Although researchers have traditionally grouped the dimensions of organizational justice into three components--distributive, procedural, and interactional justice (Farh, Earley, & Lin, 1997)--recent research has found that procedural justice covers most facets of interactional justice (Rupp & Cropanzano, 2002). Thus, current research generally classifies organizational justice into two aspects--distributive justice and procedural justice (Chen et al., 2008). Distributive justice refers to the degree to which rewards received by organizational members are perceived to be related to their job performance (Cropanzano, Bown, & Gilliland, 2007). In other words, distributive justice assesses the degree to which organizational members believe that they are fairly rewarded on the basis of their job performance, effort, and workload. Distributive justice is based on the principle of equity and reflects the idea that individual benefits are perceived as fair if they are consistent with an organizational member's perceived inputs (Lippohen, Olkkonen, & Myyry, 2004). Procedural justice refers to the degree to which fair procedures are followed within organizational activities. Procedural justice is concerned with the means by which individual benefits are allocated, but not specifically with the benefits themselves (Cropanzano et al., 2007). In particular, procedural justice focuses on the quality of an organization's decision-making process and the quality of treatment received by workers from their supervisors (Lipponen et al., 2004). Procedural justice is as important as distributive justice, because organizational members who feel that a process was unfair, despite a favorable outcome, are more likely to be dissatisfied with the rewards, even if those rewards benefited them (Tyler, 1990). Incorporating both distributive justice and procedural justice, the concept of organizational justice embraces fairness in the ends and the means within a given organization (Lambert, Cluse-Tolar, Pasupileti, Hall, & Jenkins, 2005).

Over the past decade, the literature has reported on investigations of the various consequences of organizational justice in diverse substantive areas. Most of the research has shown positive effects of organizational justice on organizational members and on the functioning of an organization (Cohen-Charash & Spector, 2001; Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng, 2001; Masterson, 2001). The positive impact of organizational justice is also relevant to social work settings. Lambert et al. (2005) empirically demonstrated that organizational justice is a significant predictor of both job satisfaction and organizational commitment among social workers. As Greenberg (1990) contended, organizational justice is "a basic requirement for the effective functioning of organizations and the personal satisfaction of the individuals in the organizations" (p. 399).


The rationale for the research model used was based on previous findings related to intention to leave. The research frameworks of prior studies converge on one of two approaches. The first approach concentrates on individual factors, such as sociodemographic and psychological characteristics, as the major predictors of intention to leave (Harrington et al., 2001; Pack, Roessler, Turner, & Robertson, 2007). In this vein, current research conducted in human service organizations has indicated that burnout of human service employees, including nurses and social workers, is the most important predictor of intention to leave (Ducharme, Knudsen, & Roman, 2008). Although...

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