Are fair and equal the same thing?
People often use these words interchangeably but talk to a group of employees and a group of leaders, and you’ll quickly see a lot of confusion around these concepts.
A manager might say, “I may not be a great leader in every area, but I’m fair.”
But talk to employees about that same manager and they’ll say, “This person is a good leader in some ways, but he just isn’t fair.”
Why is there such a disconnect? In many cases it’s because managers are defining fairness “by the book.” They’ll say, “I follow the established compensation plan, give everyone the same benefits, expect everyone to work the same number of hours, etc.”
Point this out to employees and they say, “Of course.” In their mind, these things are a given. They are a human resources function. What employees see as unfair often has to do with accountability.
An employee might say, “I am working harder and getting much better results than Larry. He slacks off, misses a lot of deadlines, and I end up having to carry my load and his, too. He’s not held accountable for his performance and that’s not fair.”
When pressed, most managers will admit there are huge differences between employees. In an ideal world, everyone would be productive at least 90 percent of the time. Some are, others are at 50 or 60 percent. It’s how you handle these differences that determine fairness — or its absence.
Here are a few truths I’ve learned about fairness over the years:
Fairness is about differences, not similarities. People are different. They have different skill levels. They bring different strengths to the table. They have different needs. Managers who try to treat two employees the same are treating them like cogs in a machine. This is dehumanizing.
It’s easier to be equal than fair. It takes a lot more thought and attention to treat people fairly than to treat them equally. Many managers let injustices happen because it’s too hard or too uncomfortable to deal with them in a way that’s fair to everyone.
Unfairness has long-term consequences. Letting a poor performer coast keeps a warm body in a slot, but that’s only a short-term benefit. In the long run, organizational performance suffers. Employee are disengaged and alienated. High performers get fed up and leave. People who need more training and don’t get it are missing out on fulfilling their potential—and the company misses out on their diverse and unique gifts.
The goal is to shift from an “equality” mindset to a “fairness” mindset. It’s a journey, but here are a few steps to take:
Make sure your evaluation processes are objective, not subjective, and metrics-based. This will ensure that people know what is expected of them, and it will be clear when they achieve the desired outcomes (or don’t). It’s hard to argue with numbers and facts. They are inherently “fair” because they make it less likely that managers will resort to guesswork or likability to rate employee performance.
When a person is not meeting expectations, ask yourself, “Is it a will issue or a skill issue?” If it’s skill, give the person the training they need. If it’s will, give them a warning. If they don’t improve, move them out. This is certainly painful in the short-term but will pay off in the long run.
Set goals according to individual ability. You want people to feel the discomfort of stretching to meet a goal. This leads to growth as the employee exceeds their own expectations. What you don’t want is to set a goal so high, an employee feels overwhelmed or hopeless. This point is different for everyone.
Know each employee’s “what.” Everyone isn’t passionate about or motivated by the same things. When you know what their what is and account for it in how you communicate with them, employees are more likely to perceive you as “fair.” Why? Because you’re showing them you know and care about them as people.
Give regular constructive feedback. Don’t save feedback for an annual performance review. It’s not fair to expect people to improve if you don’t regularly check in with them and let them know how they are doing.
Be open and transparent. When people suspect secrecy and hidden agendas, they’re not going to believe you’re being fair, even if you are. Make sure all employees know they can come to you at any time with any concern.
Reward and recognize people for their performance. Yes, higher performers deserve the raise, the promotion, the better assignment, and the public recognition. If you give reward and recognition equally, it won’t mean anything.
Being fair isn’t always clear-cut and obvious. Its meaning can vary from person to person. This is one of the many reasons why leadership is an art and a science. Complete fairness in everything we do isn’t easy to achieve. No leader will perfectly achieve it, but we can all move in that direction. And if we’re to be great leaders and managers, we need to make it a priority.