I've been asked the question many times: Is treating all employees the same the best way to lead your team?

One would think so--after all, isn't the most fair practice one of equal treatment? The question typically comes from very caring managers who genuinely want to accommodate the individuals on their team, and who are wary of being taken advantage of and opening the floodgates for special privileges. So the question of fairness is fundamental; and my advice often surprises them. The answer is no--you shouldn't treat all employees the same.

When you strive to create a workplace that is characterized by a culture of hospitality--one where people express mutual caring and respect for one another--treating every employee the same doesn't get you there. We at Hospitality Quotient believe that in employee relations--and in business in general--one size fits one. Your ability to fairly and deftly manage the particular needs of individual employees and provide a unique experience that leaves each team member feeling valued is the ultimate goal.

There are many ways this one-size-fits-one approach can be developed. For example, providing continuous, gracious feedback to employees is one of the most important things leaders can do. But that doesn't necessarily look and feel the same for each member of your team. In my first meeting with a fantastic boss, many years ago, his first question to me was: "How do you like to receive feedback?" His question allowed me to shape a fundamental aspect of our interactions based on what I felt would work best for me, and it opened a line of communication that allowed me to reveal myself--to share my preferences and insecurities. From that point forward, receiving his feedback was a breeze for me--and for him--and over time, I was even able to ask him, "How do you like to receive feedback?" We built a foundation of trust that has been the cornerstone of our relationship to this day.

Keep in mind, it's not just about how you like feedback--there are any number of questions that fit into this category, like, how you like to be communicated with (email or phone?), or how you process difficult conversations (let's hash it out in the moment, or give me time to process) or even how you work best (brainstorming alone or in a group?) Paying attention to your employees' preferences helps to build in a sense of caring that who you are as an individual matters. In a sense, it's like listening to the radio--there are many radio stations on the dial, each with their own frequencies. Figuring out how to manage each employee is like tapping into each employee's individual frequency--and really listening.

Does that mean that you can accommodate every request and every preference? Of course not. When you have an open-plan office, you can't change the noise level in the room for someone who prefers to work quietly. However, you can agree to norms of behavior that will allow people to carve out some space for their preference. For example, wearing headphones to signify that you are focusing on work and prefer not to be disrupted, or using a shared calendar to indicate "do not disturb" times are ways that you can preserve individual preferences while maintaining the unity of your workplace.

It becomes trickier territory for leaders when more seemingly significant issues arise, such as what time employees start or end their day, or whether people are allowed to bring pets to work (why her dog and not my iguana?). The fact is, employees will have requests, needs, and preferences that great cultures will try to accommodate the best they can, on a one-size-fits-one basis.

To be truly effective, leaders must be thoughtful in their approach to giving individual employees what they need, knowing that from person-to-person those arrangements will likely be different. If you can find the right balance between accommodating individual preferences and maintaining workplace unity, your employees will not only feel recognized and valued, but they'll have the space and agency to engage more closely and thoughtfully with their work.

So how do you decide what's fair? I like to use the "reasonable person test" that the US Court system uses in determining negligence. Every time I decide to make an accommodation for an employee that is special in any way, I ask myself, would a reasonable person agree with me that this is the right thing to do? Another way to think about it is, would I be comfortable telling others on the team about this arrangement? While you may choose not to do so for privacy reasons, it still helps to have a mental judge in your mind to ensure that any special treatment feels fair, for your team and for yourself as a leader. It's the difference between making a special accommodation, and a special deal.

Ultimately, any unique arrangements for a particular employee should be based on a number of contextual, personal factors; and in this way, these arrangements do not need to apply to everyone. Making a particular accommodation does not, and should not, open the floodgates for the rest of your team to be automatically entitled to the same. Think of these agreements as separate, helpful gestures that are all on a level playing field--not everyone should get the same thing because not everyone needs, or even wants, the same thing. Use the "reasonable person test" and a one-size-fits-one approach to treat each employee the way they want to be treated.

Published on: Oct 29, 2014