Yes, it is discriminatory. If some people do better work than others do, then they should get more recognition. The better, more productive employees will get more freedom to act and more Post-its saying ‘‘Thanks’’ stuck to their computer monitors. They will be allowed more flexibility in their schedules and get first choice when interesting new projects arise. And they will have earned these advantages because they make a more valuable contribution to the organization. It’s okay to discriminate on the basis of performance.
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There is a pernicious myth in organizations that says that everyone has to be treated the same—that you can’t do something for one employee without doing it for all employees. That is not true. What the law prohibits is treating people differently based on factors that have nothing to do with their job performance: race, age, sex, national origin, and so on. But there is no law prohibiting organizations from treating people differently based on the quality of their work.
There are two kinds of rewards in organizational life: the obligatory rewards and the discretionary rewards. Obligatory rewards are those things that everyone is entitled to, regardless of how well they do their jobs. Some examples: a paycheck that arrives when it’s due and does not bounce, a clean, safe, and healthy work environment, equal access to the company’s benefit plans, an environment free of any form of harassment.
No manager can diddle with the obligatory rewards the organization offers in an attempt to raise motivation. He can’t double Mary’s insurance reimbursement from having her appendix out because she did a particularly good job in bringing in new accounts, nor can he deny Fred’s legitimate tuition reimbursement request because Fred has been late to work too often. The obligatory rewards have to be provided exactly according to policy until the day that the employee quits, retires, is fired, or dies.
Discretionary rewards are different, though. Here the manager is allowed to exercise great control over who gets what. He can decide that because Mary did such a great job in building new accounts he’s going to allow her to serve on the annual event committee instead of Fred. He can also refuse to allow Fred time off to attend the marketing society’s convention until his attendance record improves. He is not obliged to allow Fred to attend; giving Fred permission is at his discretion.
The wise manager actively uses discrimination in doling out recognition, making sure that high performers get a lot of the discretionary rewards and that poorer performers get proportionately less.