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Equity theory is a theory that attempts to explain relational satisfaction in terms of perceptions of fair/unfair distributions of resources within interpersonal relationships. Considered one of the justice theories, equity theory was first developed in 1963 by John Stacey Adams, a workplace and behavioral psychologist, who asserted that employees seek to maintain equity between the inputs that they bring to a job and the outcomes that they receive from it against the perceived inputs and outcomes of others (Adams, 1965). The belief is that people value fair treatment which causes them to be motivated to keep the fairness maintained within the relationships of their co-workers and the organization. The structure of equity in the workplace is based on the ratio of inputs to outcomes. Inputs are the contributions made by the employee for the organization.
Equity theory proposes that individuals who perceive themselves as either under-rewarded or over-rewarded will experience distress, and that this distress leads to efforts to restore equity within the relationship. It focuses on determining whether the distribution of resources is fair to both relational partners. Equity is measured by comparing the ratios of contributions and benefits of each person within the relationship. Partners do not have to receive equal benefits (such as receiving the same amount of love, care, and financial security) or make equal contributions (such as investing the same amount of effort, time, and financial resources), as long as the ratio between these benefits and contributions is similar. Much like other prevalent theories of motivation, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, equity theory acknowledges that subtle and variable individual factors affect each person’s assessment and perception of their relationship with their relational partners (Guerrero et al., 2007). According to Adams (1965), anger is induced by underpayment inequity and guilt is induced with overpayment equity (Spector 2008). Payment whether hourly wage or salary, is the main concern and therefore the cause of equity or inequity in most cases.
In any position, an employee wants to feel that their contributions and work performance are being rewarded with their pay. If an employee feels underpaid then it will result in the employee feeling hostile towards the organization and perhaps their co-workers, which may result in the employee not performing well at work anymore. It is the subtle variables that also play an important role in the feeling of equity. Just the idea of recognition for the job performance and the mere act of thanking the employee will cause a feeling of satisfaction and therefore help the employee feel worthwhile and have better outcomes.
An individual will consider that he is treated fairly if he perceives the ratio of his inputs to his outcomes to be equivalent to those around him. Thus, all else being equal, it would be acceptable for a more senior colleague to receive higher compensation, since the value of his experience (and input) is higher. The way people base their experience with satisfaction for their job is to make comparisons with themselves to people they work with. If an employee notices that another person is getting more recognition and rewards for their contributions, even when both have done the same amount and quality of work, it would persuade the employee to be dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction would result in the employee feeling underappreciated and perhaps worthless. This is in direct contrast with the idea of equity theory, the idea is to have the rewards (outcomes) be directly related with the quality and quantity of the employees contributions (inputs). If both employees were perhaps rewarded the same, it would help the workforce realize that the organization is fair, observant, and appreciative.
This can be illustrated by the following equation:
Inputs are defined as each participant’s contributions to the relational exchange and are viewed as entitling him/her to rewards or costs. The inputs that a participant contributes to a relationship can be either assets – entitling him/her to rewards – or liabilities - entitling him/her to costs. The entitlement to rewards or costs ascribed to each input vary depending on the relational setting. In industrial settings, assets such as capital and manual labor are seen as "relevant inputs" – inputs that legitimately entitle the contributor to rewards. In social settings, assets such as physical beauty and kindness are generally seen as assets entitling the possessor to social rewards. Individual traits such as boorishness and cruelty are seen as liabilities entitling the possessor to costs (Walster, Traupmann & Walster, 1978). Inputs typically include any of the following:
Outcomes are defined as the positive and negative consequences that an individual perceives a participant has incurred as a consequence of his/her relationship with another. When the ratio of inputs to outcomes is close, than the employee should have much satisfaction with their job. Outputs can be both tangible and intangible. Typical outcomes include any of the following:
Equity theory consists of four propositions:
Equity theory has been widely applied to business settings by industrial psychologists to describe the relationship between an employee's motivation and his or her perception of equitable or inequitable treatment. In a business setting, the relevant dyadic relationship is that between employee and employer. As in marriage and other contractual dyadic relationships, equity theory assumes that employees seek to maintain an equitable ratio between the inputs they bring to the relationship and the outcomes they receive from it (Adams, 1965). Equity theory in business, however, introduces the concept of social comparison, whereby employees evaluate their own input/output ratios based on their comparison with the input/outcome ratios of other employees (Carrell and Dittrich, 1978). Inputs in this context include the employee’s time, expertise, qualifications, experience, intangible personal qualities such as drive and ambition, and interpersonal skills. Outcomes include monetary compensation, perquisites (“perks”), benefits, and flexible work arrangements. Employees who perceive inequity will seek to reduce it, either by distorting inputs and/or outcomes in their own minds ("cognitive distortion"), directly altering inputs and/or outcomes, or leaving the organization (Carrell and Dittrich, 1978). These perceptions of inequity are perceptions of organizational justice, or more specifically, injustice. Subsequently, the theory has wide-reaching implications for employee morale, efficiency, productivity, and turnover.
The three primary assumptions applied to most business applications of equity theory can be summarized as follows:
Equity theory has several implications for business managers:
Criticism has been directed toward both the assumptions and practical application of equity theory. Scholars have questioned the simplicity of the model, arguing that a number of demographic and psychological variables affect people's perceptions of fairness and interactions with others. Furthermore, much of the research supporting the basic propositions of equity theory has been conducted in laboratory settings, and thus has questionable applicability to real-world situations (Huseman, Hatfield & Miles, 1987). Critics have also argued that people might perceive equity/inequity not only in terms of the specific inputs and outcomes of a relationship, but also in terms of the overarching system that determines those inputs and outputs. Thus, in a business setting, one might feel that his or her compensation is equitable to other employees', but one might view the entire compensation system as unfair (Carrell and Dittrich, 1978).
Researchers have offered numerous magnifying and competing perspectives:
The Equity Sensitivity Construct proposes that individuals have different preferences for equity and thus react in different ways to perceived equity and inequity. Preferences can be expressed on a continuum from preferences for extreme under-benefit to preferences for extreme over-benefit. Three archetypal classes are as follows:
The Fairness Model proposes an alternative measure of equity/inequity to the relational partner or "comparison person" of standard equity theory. According to the Fairness Model, an individual judges the overall "fairness" of a relationship by comparing their inputs and outcomes with an internally derived standard. The Fairness Model thus allows for the perceived equity/inequity of the overarching system to be incorporated into individuals' evaluations of their relationships (Carrell and Dittrich, 1978).
Behavioral economics has recently started to apply game theory to the study equity theory. For instance, Gill and Stone (2010) analyze how considerations of equity influence behavior in strategic settings in which people compete and develop the implications for optimal labor contracts.