Equal Isn't Always Fair

Do you have employees who complain that you aren't treating everyone the same? If so, then you can skip today's lesson providing you are treating people fairly. For the rest of you, here are five reasons why treating all employees the same is a bad decision.

Expectations should vary – Suppose you have two employees doing the same job. One has been on the job for five years and another five months. Would you expect them to be performing at the same level? Probably not. Particularly if they are performing work where experience should improve performance. This means that you should have higher expectations regarding the work performed by the more experienced employee than you would of the less experienced person. Are you treating them equally? No. However, you are treating them fairly.

Pay should vary – One of the biggest complaints I hear from employees is that someone is doing the same job that they are doing and that person is receiving more pay. After further investigation, we see that the person receiving more pay has more education (perhaps a college degree) or more experience than the person who is doing the complaining. Would it be fair if we raised this person’s salary to match the other employee? I don’t think so.

Salary reductions – In this economy, we are seeing a lot of organizations doing across-the-board salary decreases. Is this fair? Not in my opinion. Asking a high paid executive to take a 5% reduction in salary has a different impact on that person than the employee at the bottom of the organization who is just making ends meet. Fair to me in this situation is to reduce payroll by terminating non-performers. This includes people who have been protected for years because of internal politics.

Office space – Who sits where and gets how much space is a really big deal in Corporate America. Many companies avoid this by putting everyone in cubicles. Equality rules, but is this any way to run a business? Certain positions require privacy. For example, if an employee wants to have a private conversation with someone in HR, they need to be able to do so without relying on a conference room being available at the precise time they are having their crises. Or perhaps members of the IT team need  larger offices so they have workspace to repair computers. Use common sense when designing and assigning offices.

Promotions – Making people wait six-months or one year before they can be promoted makes little sense. This just encourages people to maintain their level of performance rather than continually shooting for the stars. Yet, we do this all the time because we believe this is fair. Set expectations, manage performance and promote those who reach the established milestones, regardless of how long it has taken them to get there.

Take a closer look at the impact equality is having on your office. Are you inspiring your workers to be their best? Or are you merely treating them like average employees?

Until next time,


Roberta Chinsky Matuson
Human Resource Solutions

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  • Ann Latham

    I absolutely agree. Fair is far more important than equal. And employees actually handle 'unequal' really well when a company strives to be fair.

    Fair process requires that:
    1. People know what to expect and understand the rules of the game (e.g., criteria governing pay, promotions, privileges)
    2. People know where things stand and are kept up-to-date on next steps and opportunities
    3. People believe that decision-makers are honest, informed, and consistent; they know people make mistakes and can tolerate many mistakes as long as they believe the decision-makers are doing their best
    4. People believe the organization is open to suggestions, willing to debate how decisions are made, and always willing to make improvements

    With these conditions, the pressure to treat all equally when it makes no sense is dramatically reduced.

    Ann Latham, Uncommon Clarity, Inc., http://www.uncommonclarity.com

  • skip weisman

    I think this is a serious challenge in a lot companies. The prospects and clients I have discussions with to help them improve their work environment complain to me that many of their people have "entitlement" mentalities. The annual raise/bonus is expected and if it doesn't come or isn't as big as last year, disgruntlement sets in. This is a related issue to what you write about here as it deals with managing expectations.
    In my previous professional life as President of a $3million small business with about a dozen full time employees, I made it known that since we all worked many more hours than the normal 40-hour workweek that as long as you got your job done, and you fulfilled your role in making sure others got what they needed from you to get their jobs done, the actual hours worked were flexible. As it played itself out some roles just required more "in-office" time than others (e.g, customer service personnel had to be in the office during regular business hours to serve customers. But our business manager, who did payroll, AP/AR, and managed financials and stayed very late into the night often after everyone went home (but no one saw her there late because they left at 5pm) could pretty much set her own hours. This caused resentment early on with some employees until I made it clear that we all worked by the same rules, and we had to understand that our job descriptions and responsibilities could not be fulfilled in exactly the same manner. It just didn't make sense to operate any other way. After a year or two of reinforcing this as the company culture things settled down. But, it really takes a leader who is willing and able to communicate the approach effectively and consistently. Unfortunately, I find many who can't or won't invest the time to do so or feel they shouldn't have to since they "sign the paychecks."