Fairness lies in the eye of the top performer (Guest commentary)

Employers beware: All employees are not the same
By Tim Rutledge
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/09/2005

You may have seen the TV commercial where a man won’t share his potato chips with his friend. “If I share them with you,” he says, “I’ll have to share them with everybody else.” As he speaks, however, viewers are shown a vast, empty Arctic landscape. There obviously isn’t anybody else around.

The underlying joke rests in the fairness principle, the one that assumes treating people fairly means treating them the same. The workplace has supported this notion for a long time, entrenching it in employee relations thinking and practice. But it’s fiction. Employees are not the same where it really matters: in the results they produce at work.

In the next year or two, there will be more jobs than jobseekers to fill them. This will result in the first broadly-based sellers’ job market. It will become increasingly difficult to find talented replacements for employees who leave. Retaining existing talent will be significantly more cost-effective than trying to replace departed employees.

This means organizations have to be very clear when earmarking their “talent.” They have to distinguish the good performers from the not-so-good performers, and stop treating them the same.

Why do managers and supervisors persist in perpetuating this myth when there are tools, such as performance evaluations, that can clearly separate the top performers from the subpar?

For instance, one company, whose employee recognition program is supposed to reward outstanding individual examples of behaviour, honours an entire department because “they all do such a good job.” Perhaps. But it’s highly unlikely that this accolade accurately or fairly reflects the contributions of each department member. There must be some powerful factors in the workplace that drive those in charge to resist acknowledging the differences in employee productivity. Here are six possible reasons:

•The labour movement has always stipulated the only legitimate criterion for differentiating among employees is seniority. Otherwise, all employees have to be treated the same.

•Managers have insufficient performance evaluation documentation to support treating anyone differently. Also, there are no positive incentives for the manager to differentiate between employees, just as there aren’t any negative ones for not doing so, either. In other words, it doesn’t matter, so why bother?

•Recognizing different levels of productivity brings with it the risk of being charged with favouritism. These charges tend to stick in the absence of documentation attesting to meritorious performance. It’s just easier to rate everybody’s performances the same.

•Differentiating among performances means knowingly inviting some difficult or awkward conversations with the employee, whose performance is less than satisfactory. And with the manager’s boss, who may or may not support the differentiation. And with human resources, who may be called upon to provide performance counselling or initiate a performance improvement plan. And then there’s executive management, who may only pay attention to ratings that aren’t “satisfactory.” (And if someone is rated below satisfactory, what does this say about the way this person was managed?)

•Managers sometimes fail to recognize that being friendly towards employees isn’t the same as being their friends. Friends aren’t rated according to some predetermined rubric. Employees aren’t the same as friends; it’s a professional relationship that needs to be managed accordingly.

•Why bother rating performances differently when there’s almost no money available to reward those who stand out? In most companies and for most jobs, there’s almost no compensation at risk. Most tangible organizational rewards (money) are paid out for satisfactory performances. There’s not much incentive to use more discretion and rate better.

Managers realize the balance of consequences is stacked in favour of treating everybody the same; there are more negative consequences for treating people differently than there are positive ones. Prudence, therefore, suggests avoidance.

But this old-school mentality has got to go. Organizations can no longer simply assume that every employee’s performance is the same. They need to identify their talent and treat those employees differently. Failure to do this will result in the firm’s inability to retain their top performers, especially if they perceive they’re being treated unfairly.

The best performers have redefined the word “fair,” and it’s time to begin treating them accordingly.

Tim Rutledge is a partner with IQ Partners Inc., a search and HR services firm with offices in Toronto and Ottawa. For more information contact (416) 599-4700 or visit www.IQPartners.com.

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