EMS leaders must treat employees equitably, not equally

If you treat everyone equally, no one will feel the need to go above and beyond because they don’t feel their actions are recognized or rewarded


By Anthony Minge

How often have you heard someone plead, “That’s not fair”? Probably fairly often.

Maybe it’s one of your kids because the younger one has to go to bed earlier than his older sister. Or perhaps a friend expressing his grief about why he never seems to have the good fortune that others have. Or maybe it is an employee sharing dissatisfaction about her work environment.

Everyone has their own opinions about fairness. What does it really mean when we hear this though? More often than not, it means that something did not go the way someone thought it should go (typically the “losing” party!). The next thing you hear is “I demand equality!” or “We all deserve to be treated equally!”

Herein lies the confusion: equality and equitability are two different things.

Equality and equitability

Before moving on, we should define the terms “equal” and “equitable.” Dictionary.com defines “equal” as a term meaning as great as; the same as; like or alike in quantity, degree, or value; evenly proportioned or balanced. The same website defines equitable” as characterized by fairness; just and right; reasonable. While the words are similar in meaning, you’ll notice that the definition of equal does not use the word fair.

An example of the difference between equal and equitable: Jim bakes two dozen cookies. One dozen cooks perfectly while the other dozen is burnt and certainly won’t taste nearly as good. Jim gives 12 cookies to Bill and 12 cookies to Sally. This is an equal number for each person, however, he gave Sally 12 unburnt cookies and Bill got all 12 burnt ones. Not very equitable or “fair.”

Let’s look at another example. Equal is buying all of your crews new tactical outerwear. Equitable is buying the sizes that fit each person individually. Everybody gets a new coat: equal. Everybody gets a new coat that fits: equitable.

The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and I think we certainly all agree with equal pay for equal work. But how else do we determine what is equitable treatment of employees?

Equitable approach

Often times managers will try to take the easy route by using a cookie-cutter approach that treats everyone the same or “equally.” That path leads to a treacherous slope that you will find steep and unstable.

Suppose there is an upcoming educational conference and your budget allows for two team members to attend. You could use the “put all the names in a hat” approach and pull two out. There is a probability though that you would pull at least one of the people who went to the last conference. Another approach is to rank all members on seniority and cycle through each employee until all have attended a conference and then restart from the beginning. These two approaches may be equal as they allow all employees to attend educational opportunities; however, this may not fit, like the tactical outerwear, the department or the team member’s needs.

A more equitable approach would be to review each person’s accomplishments, work history, and specialties. If you have team members who have made significant contributions to the organization through work, research, pursuit of relevant education, service on departmental committees, or who have a proven (and documented) track record of going above and beyond, it is ok to put those persons at the front of such a selection list. A team member who serves as a department resource and whose performance excels the standard should get the nod ahead of the person who just does the minimum.

If you chose one of the “easy” approaches of treating everyone equally you risk creating an environment where no one will feel the need to go above and beyond because they do not feel their actions are recognized or rewarded. If they just wait on deck, they will get their turn at bat eventually and not have to exert any additional effort to get there. This can impact morale, employee retention, and even patient care. Ultimately everyone suffers because there is no desire to go the extra mile.

Of course if you choose the equitable route, the disgruntled employee will accuse you of choosing your favorites to attend conferences or receive other opportunities he has not. A leader must be prepared to support decisions with facts, not opinions. This way you are not put on the defensive and you can actually work with employees who feel mistreated to develop a path that will lead to them having these opportunities. The decision is then in their hands and if they opt to put in the time, effort, and work that is required, then they can be afforded the same chances as their peers.

You’ve leveled the playing field.

The question is, are you simply treating people equally or are you treating them fairly?

About the author

Anthony Minge, MBA, is a partner at Fitch & Associates. He has extensive experience in health care finance, specializing in managing billing and collections functions in multiple areas, including pharmacy, home health, hospital, lab, and ground and air medical transport. Prior to joining the firm, he was the business manager for Northwest MedStar in Spokane, Wash., one of the largest air medical programs in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently writing his dissertation for a Doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership.

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