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The Key to Opening the Gates of Equality Is Equity



WorldatWork has designated October as “Workplace Equity Month.” To shine the spotlight on issues of pay equity, diversity and inclusion, and social justice, Workspan Daily will be publishing various articles throughout the month on related topics. Visit our Workplace Equity page for more content on this critical area of total rewards.

When you ask someone if they believe in equality, chances are they are going to give you a resounding “yes.” If you ask someone if they believe in equitable workplaces, my bet is another head nod is coming. When you then ask if people should be treated differently, you may get into a deeper debate especially if the situation is about things that happen at work. Does treating people fairly mean we all get the same treatment? 

In a previous organization of mine, we had an employee use an expletive phrase to their manager. This incident took place in an open work area and many people witnessed the exchange. Inappropriate? Yes. Disrespectful? Yes. Did the employee get fired? No.   

We normally associate words like equity and inclusion with the concepts of diversity. Yet, there is a broader application that we can consider that may also help us achieve equality faster by recognizing that we do not all start from the same point. 

Equity and equality are two fundamentally different concepts. They are related because people often use them to mean the same thing, but you won’t get to equality without first understanding equity. At the time the employee used the expletive phrase, she was going through an enormous personal struggle that was quite literally too much for any one person to handle. In a moment of frustration, she took out her anger at the manager who was giving feedback about the quality of work. 

There is no doubt the behavior warranted some type of job action. And people were quite surprised to find the employee was not terminated. It was quickly labeled as unfair and people upset with the decision asked if they too could tell their manager the same thing without fearing for their job.    

Fairness and equality are great things to work to achieve. As leaders, however, we cannot assume each person involved already has the benefit of a level playing field. It is often hard to understand why people need to be treated differently — but therein lies the leadership opportunity.   

When we think about equity — which at its core hopes to level the playing field — we may need to treat people differently based on their own set of circumstances. The same applies when we look at equity and how someone’s identity as a member of an underrepresented group, including your personal attributes such as race, social class, gender, religion and sexual orientation, impacts you. Each of us has a different set of experiences that makes our own path to equality slightly different.   

Equality means you treat everyone the same without considering the personal circumstances or other factors that belong to the situation. On a normal day, with normal circumstances, would an employee be fired for saying an expletive to their boss? I’d say the odds are high, yes.   

"When we think about equity — which at its core hopes to level the playing field — we may need to treat people differently based on their own set of circumstances."– Scott Cawood, CEO of WorldatWork

Following this incident, a few coworkers asked to meet the HR person and plant leader that made the decision to keep the employee. It was a heated discussion in which the workers pressed very hard about their perception of fairness. They wanted assurance that if they did the same behavior, it would get the same outcome. In a final point, the plant leader shared that yes, if the exact same situation was truly encountered by them, including the intense hardship, deeply troubling personal situation and feedback being given in front of a group then yes, we’d make the same decision again.   

Different, But Fair Solutions

When addressing workplace equity, it wasn’t until recently that equity made it into the diversity and inclusion conversation. Early D&I initiatives focused mostly on equality. If we approach issues from an equality perspective only, we are likely to conclude that everyone should get the same thing. Yet, when we view the system as one of equity, we can see that our own personal stories, backgrounds and attributes don’t have the same or equal chances for success. If your two children are trying to see over the fence to catch a baseball game, do you give them the same assistance even though one is much taller than the other? No, you assess that there is an inequity due to height differences and let one stand on the cooler while you put the other one on your shoulders. The inequity is resolved by different, but fair solutions that result in more equal chances to see the game.   

Equity can play out in most organizational processes, including being listened to, hired, promoted, supported, advocated for, or included. If we only approach issues with the equality perspective, we run the risk of perpetuating an inequity that already exists for some. The goal of equity is to balance inequities where we can, even if that means we do not treat people the same.  

The reality is that coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on women, as well as Black and Hispanic communities. This once again brings into focus the need for leaders to consider the topic of equity. Just a few months ago, I discussed the importance of prioritizing workplace equity in our post COVID-19 strategies in “The Difference of Different: Time to Double Down on D&I, Workplace Equity.” Now, more than six months into the pandemic, a recent study from Peceptyx shows that the pandemic has disproportionally affected women in the workplace through, among other things, productivity decline with kids at home and less understanding and flexibility from their managers at work.    

Working parents have been among the most affected by the pandemic as they struggled with the initial mandatory quarantine and closures. And now, dealing with childcare, school from home, and their own work responsibilities, they are facing continued new and different challenges. Many parents have had to make the decision to resign or reduce their hours to be able to take care of their children. A recent survey from WorldatWork found that 21% of participating organizations have had employees leave their organization in order to focus on their family’s needs. This is not surprising when this same survey shows that while most organizations are making flexible work for parents a priority, 20% of respondents are not taking any action to assist their employees with their new set of circumstances.    

Providing Equitable Support

When addressing the impact that COVID-19 has on different populations, we continue to face many non-business decisions in support of our employees. As part of our efforts to keep the world at work, we may choose to provide equitable support to those who are disadvantaged. We can be part of the solution by, for instance, allowing flexibility for working parents with children now going back to school but doing so at home.  

Workplace and pay equity are also still in need of our attention. We have been facing an economic, humanitarian, health, and social crises in the last few months and while prioritizing our day-to-day decisions, it’s important to keep diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront as we make decisions for our people and our business.  

The economic crisis resulting from the pandemic is negatively impacting the gender pay gap. We are at the risk of taking steps back. Other recessions have affected sectors that are dominated by men, but in this case, the pandemic has affected jobs that are performed by women. In addition, as mentioned, school and daycare facility closures are impacting working moms who often carry more of the childcare responsibilities. Before the pandemic, women were making 81 cents for every dollar a male earned. However, a recent Payscale report indicates that women returning to work post COVID-19 are expected to receive 7% less pay for the same position.   

As leaders, we have a unique opportunity to act. We can find meaningful solutions that help our workers without sacrificing the elements of fairness despite not treating everyone the same. We can continue efforts to provide equitable rewards that now may need to be rebalanced as the pandemic creates a different set of implications for women, people of color, older workers, those with children, and those with existing health conditions.  

Continuing to have conversations around workplace equity, while addressing COVID-19 priorities could help decrease the long-term impact to our businesses. Remember that equality has more to do with giving everyone the exact same resources while equity considers that we may on occasion need to distribute resources (or termination decisions) based on the needs of the recipients. Sometimes you divide resources on matching amounts and other times you’ll need to do so proportionally to achieve a fair outcome. As we enter Q4 of this unexpected 2020, keep in mind those most affected by the pandemic may require a different schedule, response, or solution.

By focusing too much on treating people the same, we may miss an opportunity to truly help achieve equality.   

About the Author

Scott Cawood Bio Image

Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the CEO of WorldatWork.

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