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Don't Treat Everyone Equally

By Marty Nemko

Standard advice to bosses: treat everyone equally. After all, that makes policies clear and less prone to disputes. Indeed, many union contracts mandate equal treatment. Yet I can think of no worse way to manage people. Mary could be single with no family responsibilities while Pat could have children, aging parents, and after decades of devoted service to her employer, a heart condition. Is it really reasonable to expect the same level of productivity from Pat as from Mary? Of course, some of your workplace’s more productive workers may complain of unfairness, but isn’t it more unfair to force saddled Pat to work until exhaustion while unfettered Mary has a surplus of time and energy to devote to work? For me, wise management of people reduces to one word. It’s the opposite of equal, the opposite of standardized. The word is: individualized. Dear manager, need everyone have the same reporting requirements? To keep Joe on task, he might need to submit an activity report daily while Moe would be fully productive even if he never documented a single activity. Indeed, freed from reporting requirements, Moe would have more time to be productive. Must every full-timer be required to work 9 to 5? Unless there’s a compelling reason, flex hours should be the norm. Need everyone be evaluated with equal frequency? Some people need daily monitoring while others could, without problem, go months without an evaluation. Does everyone really need to be in the office five days a week? Unless there’s a compelling reason, everyone should be given the option of telecommuting for part of the week. Some people can go weeks without an attaboy/girl, while others need or at least crave it daily. (Count me among the latter group.) Of course, for an individualized management approach to work, the employer needs the employees’ buy-in, but once employees think about it, it’s an easy sell: Who could be against abandoning one-size-fits-all management in favor of accommodating to each person’s strengths and needs? Of course, individualized management doesn’t work perfectly. Sam will moan about having to spend a week in Montgomery, Alabama while his peers remain in the comfort of the California home office. John will complain, “How come Mary gets to go home at 3:00 to watch her kid’s soccer game?” In a unionized environment, he’ll probably run to his union rep faster than you can say “grievance.” And some employees might take advantage of your flexibility, for example, invoking the excuse of an ailing second cousin twice removed as an excuse for being unproductive. Fact is, either approach to management--standardization or individualization--has its benefits and costs. But when day is done, workplaces are more productive and pleasant when the watchword is individualization. The initial bitching and moaning will likely soon decline, replaced by praise for you being such a flexible boss.

Not to mention that your fat employee manual could probably be shrunk by 90 percent. Maybe you won’t even need an employee manual at all except for the three words of Google’s motto: Do no evil.

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