Attempting Fairness with Policy Alone Damages Engagement

August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Treating all employees fairly with correct policy sounds important, reasonable, and necessary.  All managers should do it. Correct?  Unfortunately the concept of fairness is vague at best and misleading at worst because it depends on the interpretation of each individual and that creates too much variation in interpretation.  An attempt to manage fairness with policy alone creates a lack of employee engagement especially when the process is ineffective or non-existent.

My daughter Emily is a junior in college and works part time for a catering company.  She drives to one of the catering company clients to serve dinner to elderly customers at a Senior Living facility.  Her boss rarely sees her.  He does little more than schedule the workers.  He is rarely at the location because the students work well as a team and need little or no supervision.  The process for serving dinner is very predictable and relatively easy to learn and implement.

After working a year for this company Emily was scheduled for a raise.  The company policy required she receive a performance review before she could be approved for her raise.  This policy was an attempt to treat all employees fairly by insuring all employees who receive a raise in fact deserve one.  It sounds reasonable and necessary however, there is a problem.  The boss is rarely, if ever, available to observe her performance.  He therefore must guess.  There is no predictable process in place to access Emily’s performance.  The policy exists but there is no way to carry it out because the process can’t deliver it.

The boss and Emily met.  He explained his rating of “3.2” on a scale of 1 to 4.  In this company’s performance management policy the “1” rating is unsatisfactory and requires immediate dismissal; the “2” required immediate improvement with a performance plan; the “3” means “meets expectations”; and the “4” means “exceptional”.  The boss explained that “no one ever” receives a “4” rating because he doesn’t believe in it.  Everyone can improve and therefore the rating of “exceptional” is unreachable and unattainable.  The boss had his own way of interpreting the policy.

My daughter was disappointed in her rating because she had never missed a day of work scheduled, had filled in for other employees when they called in sick or needed an evening off multiple times, and the clients loved her. She continually received unsolicited accolades and even gifts from the seniors.  She was not only disappointed but also appalled by his explanation.  She felt de-motivated and discouraged.

She decided to speak up asking, “How can you rate my performance, you are never here?”   “That’s not true” he replied.  “Occasionally I arrive at the end of the shift in time for me to see you mopping the floor.”  Policy alone cannot deliver fairness nor can it deliver engagement.  An event that was intended to increase engagement actually damaged it.  Policies don’t deliver fairness, processes do.  Without predictable processes, based on sound theory, fairness will be non-existent and engagement will be damaged.

While all employees need to understand policy it is not the policy alone that delivers the outcomes.  It is the process.  Employees also need to be treated as individuals.  Their individual needs, characteristics, skills all need to be addressed to honor their unique make-up.  The current performance appraisal process doesn’t deliver this (nor will it ever be able to do so in its current form).  Although my daughter’s story is a bit unusual in its detail, the outcome is very common, i.e. a disengaged employee after a “good” performance review.

Policy alone cannot deliver fairness and engagement.  A process that is both flexible and clear is needed to manage the variation in desired outcomes.  Too often a leader “sends down” edicts to the masses and expects compliance.  It just doesn’t work that way.  That is an unsophisticated way of achieving engagement and the results show it.


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