Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I work in an operating room and occasionally travelers—healthcare professionals who work in one city for a while, then travel to another—come through to help. We had one traveler who worked with us for quite some time and his work ethic was fair. However, one day when he openly expressed his opinion about a patient (only healthcare workers heard), he was written up for the statement and then terminated.
I think this action was extreme, considering the types of opinions that are shared in the OR about other employees, surgeons, anesthesia, or patients. This one incident was documented, but there are several that are not documented. How do we rectify the double standard?
Dear Double-edged Sword,
Let me respond in several different ways—each helping shine light on a complicated and difficult issue.
First, from history—more specifically, from my dad: “Fair? Who said the world was fair?” Sound familiar? The common response to cries of inequitable treatment is often just that. It can be so hard to hold up a standard of fair treatment at home or in the workplace, that much of the time we simply give up on any hope of equity.
From a theoretical point of view, the issue is captured in a line of research known as “social comparison theory.” We often judge how we’re being treated, not in the absolute, but relative to others in similar circumstances. It’s certainly how we judge our pay and benefits. The broader social world (comprised of supply and demand curves) sets our pay. We look to those performing the same tasks in the same community and judge our pay accordingly.
Emotionally, when we experience (or even view) unequal treatment, most of us come unglued. When I was a kid and watched movies where the protagonist was falsely accused, it drove me nuts. I used to scream at the screen when the compromised sheriff locked up Roy Rogers falsely. To this day I can’t stand it when people in positions of power abuse their authority and I simply hate it when I see unfair treatment such as the incident you reported. I despise inequity.
Legally, well I’m no lawyer—but I do know this. Even in a right-to-work state with an at-will contract, the law takes a dim view of unequal treatment. Equal treatment is the big yard stick you’ll find in every lawyer’s office and in every court room. With this in mind, when we teach Crucial Confrontations skills to frontline supervisors—asking them to hold employees accountable for certain offenses—we take care to ensure equal treatment. We let training participants know that they can’t talk to only the less-threatening employees; they have to talk to everyone who violates the same policy or procedure. Otherwise, lawyers and HR specialists will not stand behind them. The litmus test will be: Were others written up for the same offense? (By the way, it requires evidence). If the answer is no, the court frowns deeply.
Practically, you’re going to have to decide what path you want to take. I’m guessing from the tone of your inquiry that you’re looking to share that what you saw was unfair and common—and you aren’t interested in picking up the case. With circumstances like this, it’s hard to take action in a small way because of the legal issues. However, when it comes to “rectifying” the double standard, you might want to chat with your immediate supervisor or HR specialist and point out the fact that you’re uncomfortable with what you recently saw—more as an FYI than anything else (I’m assuming that the “traveler” travelled on). The purpose wouldn’t be to threaten anyone, simply to apprise others of an issue that made you uncomfortable.
When you yourself are on the receiving end of unequal treatment, you’re facing a crucial confrontation. It falls on you to decide whether you want to do something. If you do want to take action, I would encourage you to speak directly to the offending party first. Going to the HR or legal department as your first step can be a bit too much too soon. (You can always speak to them, should you need to.)
When speaking to the person in question, take care to assume the best of their intentions and start by describing the problem as you see it—i.e., what was expected versus what was observed. Stick with the facts. You did XYZ and were told not to do it again or perhaps even disciplined, whereas persons A, B, and C did the same thing and not a word was said. (You can only say this if you have hard evidence to back you up.) This discrepancy has you confused as to what the real standard is. It also feels like unequal treatment, and this has you concerned. Is the way you’re seeing the situation accurate, or does the other person have a different view or a different set of facts?
Avoid accusations. Only approach the issue if you have clear evidence of different treatment and honestly seek the other person’s point of view.
Note: When it comes to human behavior, small changes in behavior (often invisible from more than a few feet away) can lead to big differences in effect. Tone of voice, subtle word differences, and minute changes in posture can lead to what feel like very different actions. What may appear to an outsider to be unfair responses to the same behavior may actually be different responses to different behavior. As you can see, this is all very complicated.
In any case, I hope this has given you something to think about. Thank you for bringing up this all-too-common issue.