Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fair and Equal are Not the Same

Fair and Equal are not the same thing. When individuals are given equal opportunities, their accomplishments are rarely equivalent. Individuals perform differently due to a number of factors including effort, initiative, aptitude, and training. It is not unfair that everyone does not receives the same rewards. It is a fact of life. Not everyone deserves the same rewards. It is more fair to reward people differently for different levels or effort, skill or accomplishment. This is especially true in business.

Often, possibly in a desire to avoid confrontation, an organization will implement policies that are aimed at equality, but can be most unfair. Blanket policies that limit the discretion of managers are not effective in building a merit-based culture. Exceptional performers should be treated differently than mediocre performers. Managers should be accountable for making good decisions to reward merit, initiative and success.  Here is the philosophy at the organization that I lead (we call it “dogs at work”).
  • We set guidelines in our policy manual that give managers a framework that applies to a majority of situations. These guidelines are derived from basic organizational values and norms that we have established over time.
  • Managers are also given the responsibility and authority to use their judgment when exceptions are warranted. This means that in certain circumstances, exceptional performers are given special privileges or special consideration.
Why do we call it “dogs at work?”  The phrase originated from an experience that helped us clarify the difference between fairness and equality.

A few years ago, an exceptional employee asked if she could bring her dog to work for a few weeks while it recovered from a medical treatment. At a management team level, we debated whether we should allow this for her, allow this for everyone, allow this for a limited period, set a policy, etc.  After wasting more time than I care to admit on this issue, we finally realized that we were going down the wrong path. We absolutely do not want dogs running around our office. On the other hand, this employee earned special consideration and she alone was allowed to bring her dog to work for a limited period. If someone else asks for this same privilege, the answer may be different.

The message here is simple. As managers, we need to exercise good judgement and discretion. It may seem easier to set a policy, but policies can punish high performers or reward poor performers. Most circumstances are unique and require managers to differentiate between mediocre, good and great. It is more fair to provide unequal, merit-based rewards that more accurately reflect value and performance.


  1. Mr. Ziomek,
    From your comments about how much time your management team spent on this, it may have been easier to pay the person to stay home. One problem that I see in the “Dogs at work policy” is what happens when it becomes the “Kids at work”. Then one of the kids gets hurt at work. These policies are there to protect your business too. The other issue I would bring up is that of the perception from other workers. The worker that you deny the exemption to the policy may see your denial as discrimination. In many of those cases it would be up to you to prove that it was solely based on merit. This would mean your management would have to keep track of these merits. My last place of employment gave lots of these perks and it caused so much trouble. Personally, I would rather have cash as apposed to perks.


    1. Hi Wallie - thank you for sharing.

      You may be shocked to hear that we have allowed employees to bring children to work, or to work from home, and given cash bonuses among other things. Not all circumstances are identical, and flexibility is important. On the other hand, we also confront negative behavior and performance with consequences, up to and including termination.

      You do point out some challenges when managers are given the flexibility to exercise discretion. There are pros and cons to everything. In this case, we believe the pros far outweigh the cons.

      As you point out, the cons are:
      1) Some people may perceive unfairness if "perks" are believed to be undeserved. It is a manager's responsibility to practice fairness and clearly acknowledge both performance and lack of performance.
      2) Unequal treatment may be perceived as discrimination. We absolutely do not tolerate discrimination in our organization.

      The pros are significant:
      1) Managers are given the responsibility and authority to make decisions about performance and non-performance. Weak managers do not work out.
      2) A culture of trust, accountability, and achievement results when effort and success are acknowledged and rewarded.

    2. No, it does not shock me. I worked for a guy for twenty years who had similar views. We had the dogs at work as well as the kids. Next came the company cars and vibrating office chairs. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed some of the perks as well. I would sometimes hit the old man up for some new test equipment or a training seminar. This also lead to me being perceived as one of his favorites, even though he didn't get my name right half the time.
      What I was wondering is, that since these perks can quickly spiral out of control, how hard is it to strike a balance between what is fair to the employee and what is fair to the company/ Investors.

      Now, for some off the topic questions, if you don't mind.
      1. What are your views on some of the new management styles/ideas. For example, some of the new internet companies have a 20% rule. Were an engineer spends 80% of his time working on what he is assigned, and 20% is on something that interests him.
      2. How much engineering do you get to do? I remember an article in EDN (Electronic Design, strategy, News) that basically said that once you get into engineering management, you should give up on design, because you have employees to do that kind of stuff. Do you enjoy running the company more or designing?

    3. Thank you for the questions Wallie. Here are your three answers:

      1. In regard to the balance between fairness to the employee versus fairness to the organization, I contend that strong managers balance this very well. I have seen weak leaders attempt to motivate with perks. I have seen other weak managers restrict everyone with policies instead of confronting bad behavior directly. In both cases, it is a failure of leadership.

      2. I agree with the goal of 20% time which is to provide individuals with more autonomy in the workplace. Google and other product leadership companies employ this very effectively to drive innovation (see my most blog on the Discipline of Market Leaders if you are not familiar with product leadership). We have found that left alone, engineers will invent all sorts of clever features. We focus this desire to invent by providing direction through clear communication of customer needs, use-cases and applications.

      3. I no longer do day-to-day engineering. Instead, I split my time between: (a) visiting customers to experience their use-cases and applications first hand, and (b) mentoring and teaching what I know to others. In this later role, I do attend many design reviews and have plenty of whiteboard technical discussions. My role is to leverage my experience and know-how through others.