Fair and equal application of rules/ regulations/ law is at the heart of safety and health programs. In the workplace we are all held to the same standards of accountability. If violating lockout-tagout requirements is identified by the organization as a termination offense, it doesn’t matter (should not matter) who the culprit is. If stealing company property or intentionally endangering others are termination offenses, it shouldn’t matter who the culprit is.

But equal treatment does not automatically result in equal outcomes. We are manifestly not all the same. We do not have the same abilities, drive, resilience, or wants and needs. We clearly do not have equal height, hand-eye coordination, foot speed, extraversion, health, IQ, grades in school… the list of ways in which we differ from each other is virtually endless.

So how do we harmonize differential abilities and unequal outcomes with the laudable notions of equal opportunity and equal treatment?

Does a commitment to equality motivate?

There is undeniable tension between our basic commitment to equality and the need to single out and reward performance, which will vary from person to person. There is abundant literature to support the principle that well-designed merit-based pay systems are far superior to “everyone is paid the same” systems. The latter are, to be sure, easier to administer than systems than pay for performance. But they are much less effective in motivating effort, performance, engagement, and ultimate productivity. A vast research literature in behavioral science supports the conclusion that for rewards to be effective -- to support and sustain high levels of effort and performance -- they must be contingent on effort and performance. Rewards that are given non-contingently, independent of behavior, might be appreciated, but they do not motivate. They quickly become expected entitlements.

Rewarding performers can backfire

I recently came across a line of organizational research on what are called “i-deals” (idiosyncratic deals).  Most of the research on individually negotiated opportunities at work (such as additional training, or involvement in special projects) focuses on the beneficial (to the individual and the company) effects of allowing employees to negotiate for perks that are important to them. But such i-deals may arouse envy and trigger ostracism as well. And they clearly are not examples of equal treatment.

What to do?

I once went to a dean with a modest request for an i-deal. I was turned down with the logic of, “what if everyone wanted that deal?” My answer was “but they don’t… I do.” While that did not persuade my recalcitrant dean, I think it is a stronger argument than he admitted.

Why do we pay ten-year teachers more than first-year teachers, and offer them additional seniority-based perks (including tenure)? Why are many school systems grappling with the question of how to measure (and differentially reward) teacher performance? Because our society has decided that these particular inequalities are… “fair.” Differential pay is certainly not equal; but if based on legitimate measures, it is equitable. We have decided that years of service or some measure of performance are fair bases for differential pay and other benefits.

Why are high SAT/ACT scores and high school GPA the basis for accepting some applicants to college and rejecting others? Is that fair? It is not equal. But our society has accepted the proposition, driven by the data, that higher scores predict greater success (and scores below a certain level are associated with greater likelihood of failure), so we accept the inequality of yes to some and no to others, based on their numbers, as equitable.

Balancing equality and equity

I think the trick is to identify and communicate, as clearly as possible, the non-negotiable rules that will be applied equally to all, no exceptions. This is equality (of treatment, under the rules). But at the same time, it is beneficial to all concerned when the organization is open to applying negotiable opportunities flexibly, based on individual interests and abilities.  This is equity (commonly defined as what is, just, right, fair, and reasonable).  It is fairness, based on individual differences in interest, ability, and achievement.   

In our society we have gradually shifted from a commitment to equity (you get what you have earned) to a blanket commitment to equality (you get what everyone else gets) as defining fairnessWe joke in my family about building an addition to our house to hold all the “participation” trophies, ribbons, and certificates that my five children “won.” And lest anyone think that the Kello household was a training camp for future Olympic medalists, each of my kids will verify that none were cut out to be athletes. Their substantial gifts are not in the realm of sports. But signing up for soccer (and baseball, and basketball) meant getting on the team, and getting on the team meant playing (in some leagues the games were not scored – no winners and losers), and playing meant getting a trophy (or ribbon or certificate or all of the above).

I’m passionate about equal treatment and equal opportunity; I’m also passionate about the equitable (not identical) distribution of rewards and the equitable allocation of i-deals, based on individual achievement, wants, and needs.

How to deal with the concern about jealousy? If the criteria are understood as clear and fair, and if all can earn individualized opportunities based on their performance and their interests, the problem is minimal, and is more than offset by the benefits.

Is it “fair” to treat all associates identically? For non-negotiable rules and requirements, yes, absolutely. Is it “fair” to give associates differential rewards and opportunities, based on their individual interests and achievements? I would also say yes, absolutely.