Meritocracy In The Workplace: Treat People Fairly, Not Equally

Everyone wants to be treated fairly. That’s a natural expectation and it’s essential that it’s reflected by company HR policies. The problem is that “fair treatment” is often confused with “equal treatment”. These approaches aren’t the same and each can significantly impact the health of your business. Here’s how to understand the distinction, and ensure that you’re doing everything you can to encourage high performance in the workplace.


Treating People Equally And Treating People Fairly Is Not The Same Thing

So what’s the difference? Let’s start with treating people equally and see what that looks like in practice. At face value, it seems fair; we’ll treat everyone the same. Same salary, same promotion after 5 years to acknowledge that they went through the motions. But are all of your roles and responsibilities the same?

A role that requires leading a team of 100 is generally more difficult than one leading a team of 3. There are also jobs that require very specific skill sets, such as cyber security or product development. Treating everyone equally ignores the fact that some team members are contributing more than others, and rising to responsibilities that others are shirking away from. That’s why you need a workplace meritocracy; treating everyone fairly recognizes this distinction.


Different Motivators Drive Different Employees

This is especially true when we consider that different employees have different motivations when they come to work. Some employees are content with being average. They show up on time, submit their work, and clock out at 5pm. They do what’s asked of them and nothing more. In most cases, they’re happy working this way. But this is where some degree of discontent – what I call constructive discontent – is much healthier.

Think now about your top-tier talent. These employees come in early, go above and beyond, and are always looking for new ways to add value. They generate revenue or output far in excess of the average employee, because they care more about the impact that they’re making.

You already know who these employees are because they make their presence known. You need to recognize employee achievements on a case by case basis to get the most out of your top talent. Are you doing enough to recognize their contributions?


You Need To Reward And Recognize Top-Tier Talent

Companies need to be proactive and recognize their top performers, rather than simply waiting for an annual performance review to acknowledge their efforts.

Most companies reward employees for tenure. The thinking is that some employees have been with the company for years and should be rewarded for “sticking around”. You end up with a set off top managers in their 50s, on high salaries, who have probably stopped thinking or learning. It’s a huge mistake if tenure is the only reason you are recognizing those employees, because it means you’re subsequently overlooking the younger, potentially hungrier, game-changers. Recognition should be reserved for employees who go above and beyond.

There are plenty of options for recognizing employees’ contributions. You can give promotions for leading critical projects or initiatives. Above-average titles or compensation also communicates that you expect above-average work. It can serve to motivate the rest of your workforce and make you a more attractive employer. Keep it simple: reward performance.

You can also give early promotions or put top employees on a “fast track” to management roles. In some cases you can offer “stretch assignments” that prepare them for future leadership positions. Whatever the strategy, you need to proactively recognize top talent. A workplace meritocracy means you spend your time on talent development, not retention.


“Equal” Treatment Makes Retaining Top Talent More Difficult

Your top-tier employees are in a class of their own. They work harder, think bigger, and drive more revenue for your company. Why would they want to be treated like anyone else on the team? One of the biggest challenges with “equal treatment” policies is that they are one-size-fits-all, failing to recognize individuality.

What they fail to consider is how top-tier talent will often respond. If you’re the best salesperson, you don’t want to be treated the same as the worst salesperson. The best salesperson will respond in one of two ways; he will either work less, or quit. Policies that fail to recognize top talent just drive them away. You may make the company more “equal”, but you’ll also make it poorer in the process.

Fair treatment prepares your company for the long-run. You’ll retain the employees that drive growth and attract new ones. You’ll encourage less motivated employees to take their game to the next level. Your human capital is your single greatest resource. Treating people fairly instead of equally ensures your workforce is the best of the best.


It’s Not All About Salary

Arguably the biggest acknowledgement of a team member’s good work is not a raise; it’s granting them responsibility and autonomy.

You need to be able to recognize your company’s greatest potential leaders, and give them a platform on which to demonstrate their skills and work ethic.

The employees who are excited to take on more responsibility are always more valuable to you than the ones who expect a salary increase because an approaching anniversary.

Expect More From Employees Than Just Loyalty

Companies are more likely to favor fairness over equality when they reconsider what they ask of employees. Many companies and managers just want employee loyalty. They want employees to stick around, continue to produce, and ignore calls from recruiters. This emphasis on loyalty is outdated. It treats all employees the same (equally) rather than fairly. It ignores performance and the value that top-tier employees bring to the table.

Companies should expect employees to bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the workplace. Employees also need to innovate and find better ways to do business. Employees that can meet that standard add far more value than the average hire. That is why building a workplace meritocracy is so important. Companies need to recognize top employees and reward them when they get it right. If not, they will be future leaders at some other company.

Fair treatment and equal treatment are not the same thing. Equal treatment may be the easiest policy, but it will drive away top performers. Workplace meritocracy must be woven into your company’s DNA. Fair treatment recognizes those that go above and beyond to make your company successful. Treating employees fairly is the best policy for them and for your company.