Management Truth: Treat People Fairly But Not Equally


Treating people equally is unethical and foolish. Treat them fairly.

Treat people fairly but not equally, that is the ultimate key in keeping a healthy relationship in any organization, business, service, and anything where human relationships are involved. So what does it mean to treat people fairly but not equally? Why should we not treat people equally? Isn’t treating people equally is in itself treating people fairly?

Many leaders, managers, and even employees, are confused about “equally” and “fairly”. Employees think that by treating everyone equally then it is fair. Managers think that by treating their subordinates equally, they are promoting productivity and a good work environment. But in reality, they are promoting the worst things anyone can imagine.

No two people are the same. Each and every individual is unique. We all agree on that, correct? If so, then it is unfair to treat everyone equally. Why?

The Story of John Sue and Maria Masipag

John Sue and Maria Masipag both works for a company engaging in providing support services for big corporations. John Sue has been with the company for five long years, a typical employee who goes to work, work on his quota, take a lot of smoke breaks, spend his work time leisurely, and finish his quota last, then go back home.

Maria Masipag on the other hand just turned two years with the company. She loves her job and is passionate about it. Every waking day, she is eager to go to work, and goes the extra mile in making sure the company provides the best quality service for their clientelle.

The time has come for the appraisal. John receives an additional ₱2,000.00 salary raise while Maria received only ₱1,000.00. Despite Maria’s excellent performance and dedication to the company as compared to John’s, Maria was treated unfairly because rules have to be applied equally. Since Maria love her job, she just ignored it.

A day came when Maria need a schedule change. She was declined by her manager, saying “if I give your request then everyone will request the same thing”. And yet, John, when he requested for a schedule change, it was granted immediately, because well, he’s been with the company for five years already, regardless of his performance and work ethics.

Maria left the next year and not only her but other employees treated unfairly followed, while John and people like him stayed.

Is that a familiar story? Of course it is.

Here’s another story:

The Story of Juan Tamad and Princess Angelica

Juan Tamad and Princess Angelica are both renting an apartment in a beautiful city. The landlady and their neighbors know them very well. Juan as someone who always pays two months late and has said all the excuses in the world, and Princess as someone who pays three months in advance because her line-of-work requires her to be flexible in travelling when the need arises. The landlady got fed up with Juan’s excuses and kicked him out.

One time, Angelica have to be gone for seven months. She paid in advance for six months and asked the landlady if she can pay for the seventh month when she gets back. The landlady did not allow it, and said that if she gives her special treatment what would people think of her when she booted out Juan. Princess Angelica paid but not without telling her brother to take all her things out by the sixth month.

The landlady should have given Princess Angelica what she was asking for, just a month delay in payment. But because the landlady thinks that she should treat all her tenants equally, she instead lost a good tenant who pays three months in advance. (Not to mention, the landlady thinks highly of her reputation instead of looking at her tenants as people to be respected.)

The manager and the landlady both believe in consistency. They both believe in rules. They think that by being consistent with their decisions, by following the rules rigidly, they are being fair. On the other hand, fairness is treating people individually, on a case-to-case basis, based on the situation or circumstances, history of the person, and other factors like contribution to the organization or the person’s performance.

The Results We Fail To Admit

If you treat your employees equally, notice how your top performers slows down and loses interest? While your less performing employees is still less performing, worse, performing even less than before?! However, if you treat your employees fairly but not equally, you will notice for yourself that your top performers continues to excel and beat their own personal records, while your less performing employees performs better or leave the company.

Here’s another: Punishment. A good leader with good management will never impose sanctions on everyone because of someone’s fault. That is not fair. That only creates hatred towards you and the company. A punishment is dealt out to the person who made the mistake. We give punishment to individuals not to groups. We use it so the person will learn and not repeat it again. The person who did wrong will only repeat it because he was not punished for it, it was the whole group that paid for his wrongdoing. Next time, he will use that to make his colleagues suffer again.

It is management, not leadership

Being equal, or consistent, or by-the-book, is an easy-way out. You don’t need to think about anything, just follow the book and you’re done. While being fair requires effort, time, and having a good and sound judgment. Of the two, it is clear who the real and true manager is.

Do you treat your children equally or fairly? If you treat them equally, then what is not allowed with your 10-year old son should also be not allowed with your 23-year old daughter. Of course you don’t do that, why? Because you know for a fact that a 10-year old kid has different needs, different brain-function, different knowledge and experience, than your 23-year old daughter. Even if they’re of the same age, a 24-year old son and a 24-year old daughter, you still do not treat them equally and you know why.

Now comes leadership

Yes, children and employees confuses “equally” and “fairly”. This is where a good leadership skill comes into play. You explain the difference between the two. You explain why you manage people fairly but not equally. You explain why Maria Masipag deserves to get ₱3,000 salary raise and John Sue only ₱500.00. You explain that Maria earned the right to get her schedule of choice. You explain why Princess can pay late for a month or three but not Juan. You explain why Dexter Labs was given a flexible time and the others not.

You explain that it is a case-to-case basis. That whatever you, the manager, and the employee/tenant/customer has discussed, is on a need-to-know basis. As a leader, you should be able to explain that. If you can not do it, then obviously you fail at being a leader and at the same time, more likely than not, you fail at being a good manager as well. Management skills and leadership skills comes hand-in-hand.

Treating people equally is unethical and unfair. It is wrong. It is evil. It is foolishness. It greatly reflects what the future of your organization will become. However, if you treat people fairly but not equally, it shows how great a leader you are, and people will stay with you because you show that you respect them and you are a fair human being.

So which one are you? The manager and leader that treats everyone equally regardless of their achievements and contributions? Or a manager and a leader that treats everyone fairly by giving them what they deserve and what they need?

Why don’t you read my My Top 10 Tips for Good Leadership? Or Who Reaches Out? The Leader or the Member?

“Fair vs. Equal” image via Google image search, by The Differentiation Destination.

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Management Truth: Treat People Fairly But Not Equally by Yahanan Xie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Legal Notice.