Treating Employees Equally vs. Fairly

I recently attended a roll call where a sergeant taking over a new team, discussed his expectations of them. While going over these expectations, he made a statement that doesn’t get enough attention in leadership. He said he will not treat everyone on the team equally, but he will treat them fairly. He articulated his reasoning based on everyone having different strengths and weaknesses. Some officers on this team had less than two years on, others with significantly more. Everyone on the team had various levels of expertise beneficial for the community and the organization they worked for. In providing leadership to the team, he said he is mindful and cognizant of the mixture of talent and experience of his troops.

Having said that, I’m in no way saying there’s no place for treating people equally. There are situations when that’s appropriate, such as talking and treating people with respect. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m highlighting a level of sophistication some leaders are lacking, and has led to a decline in morale in many law enforcement agencies. In this context, treating everyone equally means a rookie officer is expected to know just as much as a senior officer with 20+ years, which is unrealistic. Expecting a patrol officer to have the same tactical knowledge of a SWAT officer is also unrealistic. If you want to be an exceptional leader, work on having the wherewithal to understand the intangibles (such as experience and skill sets) of your individual officers, and lead them accordingly.

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