Don’t worry, the first, four-letter word a child learns is likely not the one you are thinking. It’s “FAIR.”
We understand from early childhood the difference between more or less, better or worse. I was reminded of this recently by one of our clients who challenged leaders in her company to consider ways in which they demonstrate their commitment to treating employees fairly. “When my son was as young as three years old,” she said, “he knew if someone got more ice cream than he did, or if someone got more turns on the swing.” It is innately human to question whether what we receive measures up against what others have.
In my own experience, to promote equity between my sister and me when we were young, my parents instituted this rule: “The one who cuts picks last.” With knife in hand, we executed the division of every cookie, brownie, or piece of pie with the skills of a surgeon; M&Ms, on the other hand, were poured from the package and counted. Before we started kindergarten, my sister and I had become masters of equal distribution.
As leaders, though, we know all too well that equal distribution of promotions, opportunities, and compensation is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Too, as any parent knows, giving each child the same gift will not result in more joy, but quite possibly less. The fire truck given to the child who aspires to be a firefighter inspires delight, while the same truck may evoke discouragement for another with different passions. Treating everyone the same may actually be unfair.
How do we to treat people fairly while simultaneously treating them differently? What we must do is balance both equity and individuality, taking into account matters of style, preference, performance, and skill. And even if done well, many may wonder if there aren’t still going to be people who believe that they weren’t treated fairly. While that may be the case, it most certainly shouldn’t be an excuse for not making the effort to treat individuals fairly.
What do you tell your leaders about “fair treatment”? We offer a few ideas below and ask our Civil Treatment community to share their ideas. Leaders committed to fair treatment:
- Are available. No matter how comfortable people might be in talking with a leader, the leader’s approachability is meaningless unless coupled with accessibility. Leaders need to be intentional about creating times when they are available.
- Listen and discover. Leaders must learn what kinds of recognition and praise are meaningful to employees; what their goal and aspirations are; and what concerns they have.
- Honor uniqueness. Providing similar but distinguishable moments that demonstrate that leaders recognize people as individuals is important. In greetings, meetings, moments of recognition, etc., leaders can show that individuals are valued for who they are, not just what they do (and, in some cases, despite what they do).
- Are visible. Leaders should be seen treating people consistently in a variety of settings. The more consistent leaders are in their interactions, the more credible and trustworthy they become.
- Communicate promptly and reasonably. Leaders need to connect the dots; when making decisions, they should explain how the decisions were made and what factors were taken into consideration. In the absence of an explanation, people will draw on their own experiences to determine what happened and what may have motivated the decisions. And what they come up with may be very far from the initial truth, but their perceptions ultimately become a truth all its own, one which may be very difficult to reconcile. Leaders should demonstrate through proactive communication their adherence to business objectives and organizational values to avoid leaving people guessing.