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Treat Employees Fairly But Not Equally


By: 
Date: August 18 2003

Part 1 - THE PROBLEM: Our research shows that 6 of 10 employees believe that their company is doing a poor job of applying personnel policies and procedures fairly. When employees feel they are not administered fairly they lose respect for management, build up resentment toward their fellow co-workers, and lose motivation for their work.

It is our experience, however, that employees often confuse unequal treatment with a lack of fairness. They believe that all employees should be treated exactly the same regardless of their jobs or personal needs. Employees resent when:

  • Mothers with kids at daycare can leave promptly at 5:00 but single workers have to stay later;
  • Smokers get to take smoking breaks but non-smokers do not; and
  • Some department can take vacation whenever they want but others are restricted to certain weeks.
But these complaints expose a common fallacy. Employees should always be treated fairly but rarely should they be treated exactly the same.

(And, of course, there should be no personnel decisions made on the basis of differences in sex, age, national background, race, religion, sexual preference, or disability.)

Do you have the same rules for your 7-year-old daughter and your 17-year-old son? Of course not! They are different, have different needs, different responsibilities, and different capabilities. They are treated fairly but not equally.

Similarly, in the workplace:

  • It is often appropriate for superior performers to receive special benefits, increased pay, and more flexibility.
  • Some jobs require precise starting times and less flexibility than others. Customer service personnel, for example, need to man the phones during normal working hours, while sales personnel often need to attend networking meetings during the evenings and weekends
Part 2 - WHAT MANAGEMENT CAN DO:

  1. Promote Flexibility Rather than Rigid Rules
    Many organizations make the mistake of becoming extremely rule oriented. They produce personnel and procedure manuals as thick as phone books and expect that this will help ensure fairness. But, rules are made to be broken and are always subject to interpretation. A thick rulebook will make it more, not less, difficult for supervisors.
  2. Treat Employees Like Adults
    Employees want to be treated as unique, mature individuals. They want to know that special exceptions will be made to accommodate their particular circumstances.
  3. Communicate Your Philosophy of Flexibility
    Make it clear to employees that everyone will be treated fairly but not exactly the same and that you reserve the right to treat employees as individuals and to make exceptions to the rules.


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