You’ve probably heard this statement many times from the leaders you’ve had in your career and you’ve likely said it yourself from time to time. The statement is:
“I’m being fair because I treat everyone the same.”
The reality is that treating everyone the same can be one of the most unfair things you do as a leader. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating everyone the same because it’s the easiest thing to do. Broad-brushing everyone with the same treatment is less work and causes fewer headaches for leaders. “Sorry, that’s the policy” or “I’m treating you the same way I treat everyone else” takes less mental and emotional effort than digging into the individual situations of our team members and formulating an appropriate response.
Frankly speaking, I think it’s a leadership cop-out to treat everyone the same. It’s the path of least resistance. Now granted, there are certain rules or policies, particularly those involving health, safety, and welfare, that need to apply to everyone equally. But generally speaking, when it comes to day-to-day employee relations, too many managers default to treating everyone the same as their method to ensure fairness.
There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. ~ Aristotle
Instead of trying to be fair by treating everyone the same, try treating people equitably and ethically given the particular situation. Let’s drill into that a bit more.
Treating people equitably means being impartial, unbiased, and even-handed in your dealings with others. It also means you are concerned with people getting their just deserts; what they have rightfully earned or deserve. Treating people ethically means you hold them, and yourself, to the principles, standards, rules, or policies of right conduct.
Let me give you an example. My team has a policy that affords people the privilege to work from home two days a week if they meet specific standards of performance. Some people meet the standards and get to work from home while others don’t meet the standard and aren’t able to enjoy that privilege. Both sets of people are treated equitably because the policy is applied impartially and they receive what they deserve. They’re also treated ethically because they are being held to the same standard of performance. If everyone were treated “the same,” it would mean all or nothing—either no one is allowed to work from home or everyone is given the privilege. You can see why it would be easier to treat everyone the same instead of looking at each case individually and treating the person equitably and ethically given his/her unique situation.
Treating people equitably and ethically is closely tied to the concept of justice. Fairness and justice are often used interchangeably but they are separate constructs. (See here, here, and here for interesting reading on the distinctions between fairness and justice.) Without getting too far down a rabbit’s hole, there are two forms of justice leaders should pay attention to: distributive justice and procedural justice.
Distributive justice is concerned with the fair distribution of pay, rewards, and recognition within the organization. Procedural justice involves the policies and procedures of an organization being applied fairly and consistently across the organization. Treating people equitably supports distributive justice in that people are rewarded according to what they’ve earned, whereas treating people ethically supports procedural justice because everyone is held to the same standard and must play by the same rules.
Treating people fairly can feel like a no-win situation for leaders. There will always be someone who exclaims “that’s not fair!” which causes leaders to play to the lowest common denominator—treating everyone the same. As the quote above from Aristotle illustrates, not everyone is the same, and treating them the same can be one of the most unfair things you do. Instead, focus on treating people equitably and ethically. It takes more time and effort, but in the long run you will be known as a fair and trustworthy leader.