When Equal is Unfair

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination. That makes sense. We shouldn’t treat people differently based on their group membership, whether the group is defined by race, religion, gender, or otherwise. But does this mean that employers should treat all employees the same? Not even close.

The use of the word “equal” in reference to avoiding discrimination is misleading. Equal is defined as the same. A better choice would be equitable, which is defined as fair and impartial.

See, here’s the issue. People are not all the same. So treating them the same will produce mixed results. A company doesn’t want and can’t afford mixed results. A company wants productivity, motivated employees, waste reduction, or other evidence that investments in human resources are paying off.

An example: Sarah is a highly motivated individual who thrives on the recognition she receives for her work. She loves to hear her name called in meetings when the management team is discussing top performers. She has been exceeding her goals every month for the last year. Matt holds the same position as Sarah. He’s more reserved and tends to like to gather information and then respond. He has a small group of close friends, but is not social at work. He dislikes public showmanship and is uncomfortable being recognized in meetings. Matt’s performance record was excellent for his first year of employment, but about eight months ago, it started to hover just at meeting the expectations.

What happened? About a year ago, the company started to name all of the employees who were exceeding their expectations at a monthly company meeting. Sarah thrived and Matt is trying to do his job but stay out of the spotlight. Both are equally capable, but they are not the same. They are motivated by different things and have different communication styles. They have very different personalities and different lives outside of work. So what happens when we treat them the same? We get different results.

Benefits pose a similar issue. The workplace is made up of people who have just a few things in common – the fact that they share an employer and possibly similar career goals. Other than that, there will be a range of ages, stages in life, interest, lifestyles, personalities, values, priorities…the list of difference is a lot longer than the list of similarities. It doesn’t make sense to think we can treat everyone the same and get a return on our investment.

Let’s go back to the idea of being equitable for a minute. Saying that we can’t treat everyone the same doesn’t mean that we should be unfair, that we should discriminate, or that we should otherwise mistreat people. It means that instead we need to focus on being equitable. If we want to communicate effectively with our employees, we need to use a mix of styles and platforms to be effective. If we want to motivate our employees, we need to use a variety of approaches to reach the diverse sources of motivation in our employees. The same is true for so many facets of employment.

The beautiful thing about the workplace is that it’s diverse. And not just diverse in the legal sense, but diverse as in rich in human differences. We should respect, recognize and embrace those differences, and to do so, we need to let go of “the same” and focus on what is equitable.

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