equal treatment

“I don’t understand. I treated her the same as the other members on my team. I have been giving her equal treatment!” Kumar (name changed) was obviously bewildered and visibly upset too.

His team member, Vandana (name changed), had raised a sexual harassment case against him for using extremely foul language during a review meeting.

“I even offered her to step out, should she find my language offensive. She had chosen to remain in the room. Then where is the basis for this complaint?” Kumar’s voice was rising.

A bit of a background here becomes relevant. Kumar is the Regional Sales Head of a leading FMCG company. Vandana had recently joined his team at a mid-position in sales, as the only female member of his eight member team. Kumar had expressed his reservations about hiring a female for an intensive sales role. However, her impressive track record and the organization’s commitment towards improving its gender diversity had made her the top-of-the-list candidate for this role.

“Just give her equal treatment, and you should be fine”, is the advice the business HR member had given him. Kumar had done just that, never making any distinctions between her and her male colleagues.

It was all going fine until the quarterly review meeting, during which he found that the team was woefully behind their sales targets. Aggression had always worked for him in the past, and that is the approach he had taken with his team, with a view of motivating them to work harder to achieve targets.

And it was after this meeting that Vandana had reached out to the head of the Inquiry Committee.

The committee was facing its biggest dilemma about the best way to handle the case. Kumar had not singled her out in using the language he had. Moreover, he had offered to her that she step out. In choosing to stay back, Vandana had given her silent consent on hearing swear words. It seemed to them that Vandana’s case was quite baseless. However, in wanting to be fair, she was called in to present her perspective.

Quickly moving to the next scene, Vandana’s argument:

“Yes, I was given the option of leaving the room. However, this option was offered only to me, the only female member on the team.” Seeing the bemused look on the faces of the committee members, she continued.

”His option was not an option at all. Had I chosen to leave the room, the team would have perceived me as being too sensitive. The simultaneous message I would have given is that I am not capable of sales. We have these meetings every month. Am I supposed to stay out of our review meetings every month? And moreover, he made that offer only to me. The male members were not put in the same tight spot as me”.

The committee was beginning see her point of view, but was not yet convinced that this case warranted a complaint of sexual harassment.

“The language he used made me extremely uncomfortable. And I would not want to be subjected to it again.”

Not delving deeper into the way the case was resolved, or the appropriateness vs. inappropriateness of the language used by Kumar, Vandana’s case brings up a pertinent point: that of Sameness and Equal Treatment vs Equality in the Inclusion discourse.

I find that often-times, equality is either replaced with or confused with equal treatment. This, in my opinion is almost like pretending that differences do not exist. This interchange of concepts embodies the notion of a certain standard against which sameness or equal treatment is judged. This is detrimental to true inclusion, as at one level, it seems to promote false neutrality, and at the other, it requires the minority group to either deny or attempt to minimize differences with the majority group. 

Equality is about equal access to resources, information and opportunities. It cannot be achieved by treating the minority group same or equally to the majority group. In the case above, it was against a male standard that equal treatment was being offered: if male members are okay with abusive language, then the female member should also be okay or just leave. Of course, notwithstanding that many male members may not be okay with it too.

One could say that equality would have been demonstrated had the manager accepted that his new team member was not okay with his abusive language, and tried to motivate his team in a different way this time around. Or perhaps, the male members could have been given the same option as Vandana, gender not being a case in point all. It is an assumption that all males are accepting of abusive language being used!

For inclusion to take place in its true spirit, managers should be educated about this subtle but crucial difference between Equality and Equal Treatment. In some situations, just equal treatment can be detrimental to inclusion of minorities, and a cognizance of that truth will help create better workplaces for all. 

But how can managers be more sensitive to these homogeneous and heterogeneous needs of minorities?

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