The other day I was leading a workshop and the topic of holding people accountable to policies and standards came up.  At one point someone mentioned the importance of treating people fairly and that transitioned into someone stating that people needed to be treated equally.  Quickly, one of the participants, said “That doesn’t really work, we need to treat people equitably, not equally.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Equity, not equality, is essential in building strong relationships, increasing trust, supporting people’s growth and ultimately increasing organizational performance.

It’s important to understand the difference between equity and equality.  Many people have seen a version of this image that summarizes equality versus equity fairly well.



But how many of us stand behind wooden fences, trying to watch soccer games?  I recently read a better analogy from Jason Purnell of Washington University in St. Louis who credited Glen Harris of the Institute for Social Inclusion.

To paraphrase:
At most large event venues, men and women experience very different waits in line to use the restroom.  Men are usually in and out quickly, while women experience longer lines.  Most of these venues have probably taken an equality approach to bathrooms.  Since there are roughly the same number of men and women in the population, they installed roughly the same number of toilets. An equity approach would suggest that there should be either more women’s restrooms or some other approach that decreases the difference in bathroom experience.  It’s important to note that in this example, while the women bear the larger cost, the women’s male companions or children also bear a cost in wait time or possibly missed opportunity.

I think this is easier for most of us to relate to.  We have all probably been on one side or the other of this experience and probably shared frustration around it with friends or family.  It also does a good job of highlighting the subtle–or not so subtle–secondary costs of inequity.  When we don’t treat our employees equitably, the organization pays a price too, whether it’s loss of productivity, lowered morale or higher turnover.

While all employees want to be treated fairly, and they may even say that everyone should be treated the same, when it comes to implementing policies, most actually want to be treated individually.  Instead of rigid rules, they hope for fair guidelines that leaders then apply appropriately.  This is challenging for leaders and managers and takes time, discipline and communication to implement successfully.  When it’s done poorly, it comes across as favoritism.  When it’s done well, people feel valued as individuals, they trust their leaders and they perform at higher levels.

What specifically might this mean for your organization?
I can’t tell you that, but in today’s business culture hiring and retaining qualified and committed employees is challenging.

Are there policies in place solely to “treat everyone the same”? Has your leadership team had a discussion about policies and procedures that might be actually increasing inequity?  Are there practices that can be rewritten or reinterpreted to offer direct supervisors flexibility in applying them more equitably?  Do different teams need different approaches to perform at their highest level?

As you explore equity in the workplace be sure to examine things that you have control over, but look broadly.  Does everyone need the same equipment, or do some need additional tools to get their job done effectively? (I once was required by a supervisor to purchase the exact same computer for everyone in an organization even though for some that model was underpowered, while for others it was so much more than they would ever need.)

Can you accommodate some flexibility in scheduling for things like transportation schedules or daycare hours? Minor changes can make a big difference for people and allow them to show up on time and perform well, rather than being considered habitually late or an early leaver. (I’ve had clients where a shift as small as five minutes had this impact.)

This can also apply to awards and recognition.  If you participate in this practice, think about not giving the same coffee cup to everyone. (Unless, it’s a really cool coffee cup, I might suggest staying away from that all together.)  Different people are motivated by different rewards.  Without hunting down special gifts for each person, spend some time thinking about awards or perks that individuals will actually appreciate.  Is it flex-time, gift cards to the coffee shop, time spent with a leader of the organization, professional development opportunities or something else?

As with most things related to leadership,a commitment to equity requires continual awareness and you may not get it exactly right all the time.  But, if you keep an eye out for opportunities to increase equity in your organization or on your team, you’ll be amazed at the number of chances that show up and the long term impact it can have.