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Is It Fair to Treat All Employees Equally?

The HR leader’s seat offers an interesting vantage point from which to observe human nature. Everybody who’s there learns their own lessons, and at the risk of sounding cynical, here’s one of mine: People generally insist that all of a company’s rules be enforced equally – until that’s a problem for themselves, in which case they expect accommodation if management has to rearrange the cosmos.

I mean that in as charitable a way as possible – we all have our foibles, and at some point life’s hits will focus all of us on our own problems to the exclusion of those around us. Still, the reality highlights a problem common for anyone in a leadership role: When do the rules get enforced, and when can they be broken?

First, a defensive side note: HR attracts and earns its share of criticism and even ridicule, but one accusation that’s truly undeserved is the one claiming that HR only enforces the company rules, and never makes exceptions. To the many who agree, I’d just ask you: So if your employer kept your full paycheck coming while you went to rehab because your wife is having surgery in a month, you’d want HR to broadcast the news? Exceptions like that happen all the time; it’s just in no one’s interest that they be announced, whatever the impact on HR’s image.

Sometimes laws require exceptions, such as for servicepeople returning from a military leave, or an employee disabled under the ADA who can’t return to work but has exhausted all of her available leave. That said, the overwhelming majority of the time, the analysis should go like this: Is it a rule, or is it not a rule? Does the customer expect his product by Friday, or is Monday ok? Do we need this to comply with a regulation, or do we not? If there’s generally a lot of flexibility, you’ve probably got a dumb rule, in which case you should create one that actually guides people. Otherwise, when the expectation is related to a commonly understood, material requirement of the business, people should almost never be granted an exception.

But good people of course get into scrapes at times, no matter how real the job requirements, and come to management looking for a break. What then? Here’s my best answer: Discipline them; BUT, have a policy that provides for disciplinary actions to become inactive after a certain amount of time. If this concerns a person who really is just in a temporary rough patch, then they’ll fix the problem, life will go on and no harm done. But if it’s the start of a pattern, neither of you have to pretend the problem never happened.

That doesn’t feel right in a case? Then ask yourself; if I cut him a break, how confident can I be that we won’t be back here again for the same problem? The best way to satisfy yourself on your answer is to consider the length and quality of the employee’s tenure. If the person has a problem after only a few weeks, you just won’t have the evidence to be confident that bending the rules is the right call.

(However: When the question of an exception concerns an employee who is an addict, or trying to recover from an addiction, do not grant it for anything, no matter how small, at any time, ever. You will regret it. Every time. Dismiss everything else you’re reading here if you like, but on this one, trust me.)

Our notions of “equality” are often formed by its application in public policy; but in private organizations such as businesses, equality should operate on a different calculus. Of course, managers are forbidden to make decisions on the basis of an employee’s membership in a protected class, such as race, sex, etc. That’s what we call “discrimination.” But giving one employee a big raise and another employee no raise, promoting one employee while firing another, are also examples of discrimination. Not only are those forms of discrimination lawful when done on the basis of performance, they are expected of any manager. Doing less isn’t fair to the organization.

Treating everyone exactly the same is easy for a manager; but the only people who like that approach are the B minus and C players. It’s least popular with your A players, who are delivering the bulk of your results. So strict equality before the law is good public policy, but it makes for very bad management.

It’s a harder road to hoe, but it’s simple reciprocity. When an employee gives you what you want, it’s easy for you to give her what she wants; but if she doesn’t give you what you want, how can you give her what she wants? Where most of us come from, applying that test equally – whatever the outcome – is the definition of fairness.


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