Third Phase Coaching | What’s the difference between treating people equally and treating them fairly?


What’s the difference between treating people equally and treating them fairly?

08 Sep 2017, by Dave Paton in Leadership

Chosen ManTwo different member of staff come to you separately asking for time off. One wants to go to the dentist for their annual checkup, the other has a doctor’s appointment. The first member is an exemplary employee – comes in early, is always willing to help with deadlines, supports colleagues with their workload and takes responsibility for their actions.

The second employee could be charitably described as being ‘high maintenance’. Their attendance record is poor with repeated short sickness absences in the last year, regularly 10 minutes late in the morning and out of the door on the dot of 5pm. Their work is often late and needs careful monitoring for quality.

Is this an opportunity to redress the balance, reward the hard worker and teach the malingerer a lesson? Or does equality mean treating everyone exactly the same all the time? The trouble with these decisions is they come with no notice, when you’re already busy and when your patience with a difficult member of staff is already low.

Do you have to say yes to both of them?

First ask yourself-

    • What is the effect on your business of granting these requests?
  • Can either of them reschedule their appointment to allow for business needs?
  • What have you allowed others to do?

And there’s one key thing to remember. Do not react emotionally. A boss of mine once told me when I was young, inexperienced and frustrated with someone’s behaviour…

‘Only lose your temper when you haven’t!’

Great advice. Because once you’ve lost control of yourself you have no idea what’s going to happen. And that means you MUST separate the performance issues from this decision.

Lets assume you’ve agreed they can both take time off to attend their appointments. You’ve treated them equally. But you may have any other choice to make.

Do you have to pay them the same?

Is it fair that one person, who gives lots of extra time to their job, should be penalised? Or that someone who has not fulfilled their contracted hours should be rewarded? What flexibility do you have?

There is no single answer to this. It depends on your organisation’s custom and practice, how much control the person has over the absence and whether it is a one off or repeated.

But there is something to remember.

Other staff will be affected and my become demotivated if they see underperformance rewarded and commitment being ignored.

What steps can you take to avoid this happening again?

  • Take steps to deal with the underperformance as a an urgent, but separate issue
  • Improve your future recruitment to ensure you hire the right people for every role.
  • Introduce an effective absence management policy (Have a look at this video)


To discuss how to achieve these objectives contact thirdphase.


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