Lucy Adams
March 10, 2023
Reading time: 8 minutes
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A true story: A high-performing employee asked if he could get a couple of additional days holiday because he wanted to donate his bone marrow – a procedure that usually takes a few days to get over. The HR team considered his request but ultimately turned him down. The reason they gave was that – and I’m quoting here – ‘if we give this to you, then we’ll have to do it for everyone’ and ‘everyone will be doing it to get the extra leave’.

Now we can laugh at the absurdity of this very extreme case and reassure ourselves that we would never adopt this stance. But in many ways, we demonstrate a similar, rigid adherence to treating people equally and consistently. For example, …

  • We subject everyone to ‘return to work’ interviews, when there’s only a couple of team members who are taking advantage.
  • We say that everyone has to come into the office because some customer-facing, or hands-on, employees can’t work remotely.
  • We deploy training programmes for all employees, when it’s really only a couple of people on the team who are the subject of complaints.

From the day we start out in HR, it is drummed into us that we need to be fair. We must avoid discriminatory practices. And so, we must treat everyone the same. Unfortunately, whilst fairness and equity are desirable, we don’t get these by treating everyone the same. Fairness is NOT the same as consistency – and in some cases – being consistent actually creates MORE unfairness.  I love this quote from Kimberlé Crenshaw – an American civil rights advocate and professor at UCLA and Columbia … She said “Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.” 

So, what do we mean by being fair and how is it different to consistency?

Consistency means treating everyone in your organisation in the same way. Fairness means treating each person appropriately, based on the situation and the preferences and needs of that person.

It’s easy to see how we got to this place in HR. Consistency is easier and depends on nothing but conformity to a rule or policy. Being fair is harder. It requires leaders to apply good judgement and feel comfortable in explaining their decision to the individual. They can’t simply rely on a policy. Nor can they blame HR.

Now, we have many managers who don’t want that responsibility – or who lack the confidence and skills to do it well. But equally, in our human lives we are very capable of differentiating between fairness and consistency. For example, we don’t set the same rules for our 16-year-old son and our 8-year-old daughter, do we? We get the fact that our friends need and want different things from us. An extrovert husband will hopefully appreciate that his introvert wife doesn’t want him to book social engagements every night of the weekend. Sorry, that last one was a bit personal!

Our role in HR is not to produce greater consistency with more rules and procedures, but to coach managers to use their judgement, to help them overcome their reluctance or their anxiety about taking this responsibility. Because when we have managers engaging in grown up conversations with their team members about what they need and what, in the manager’s view is appropriate – we can achieve a level of fairness and equity that will never be achieved by one-size fits all policies.

We’re now seeing a shift away from prescriptive policies that try and deliver consistency – and instead the emergence of light touch principles that allow for judgement, for flexibility to accommodate the very different needs of our people. One of my favourite examples of this is from a company in Sweden called Prisjakt. They took a very different approach to the traditional and, usually awful, bereavement policy. Instead of specifying the number of days you can take off based on the relationship you had with the deceased, they have a simple statement. It reads,

‘From time to time, there might be events occurring in our lives that make us tremble and fall.  It could be the death of a loved one, or signs of anxiety that can hit us when we least expect it.  Not all things in life are under our control.

We’ve got your back.  We will make sure you get all the time and support you need.’

They are proud of their lack of consistency because they are focusing on fairness – what each person needs. The only consistency they are aiming for – is consistency of experience – because that’s what matters.

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