No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Employment lawyers often say “No good deed goes unpunished.” We don’t mean you shouldn’t do “good deeds” to help, respect, thank, and reward employees and build stronger relationships. “Good deeds” are the right thing to do. However, if not done thoughtfully, “good deeds” can cause unexpected “punishment.” Let’s take a simple example.

Pam is Big Paper’s top salesperson, so her supervisor, Jim, treats her like a star. When others are late for meetings they are disciplined. When Pam is late, Jim excuses it assuming she was on a sales call. When others have health or childcare issues, they have to use paid time off and follow policies. When Pam’s child is sick, Jim never makes her use PTO. When Jim has gift cards or concert tickets to give out, they usually go to Pam.

While Pam’s special treatment is because she is the best, not everyone will see it that way. Some will think it is unfair and that policies should be applied equally to everyone. An older salesperson may wonder if Pam gets special treatment because she and Jim are relatively young. Employees may wonder if it is because Pam and Jim are the same race (or religion, or ethnicity, etc…), especially if many are different from Pam and Jim. Still others might suspect that there is a personal friendship (or even a romantic relationship) between Pam and Jim.

Even if none of this speculation is true, these types of “good deeds” in treating Pam as a star invariably lead to complaints of discrimination.

So, how do you prevent these unnecessary (and disruptive and expensive) claims while still enabling Jim to keep Pam a happy Big Paper employee? While Jim can and should treat Pam well, you have to help Jim (and other managers) recognize that it is not only how they treat the “stars” that matters.

Earned rewards and “way-to-go’s!” are great, but unless Pam is really the only one deserving, they should be spread around. Rules and procedures should apply to everyone. If being on time matters for some, it matters for all. Same goes with taking time off. If there is a policy that matters, all employees should follow it.

While this may seem obvious, these “good deeds” are at the core of many discrimination claims. When employees perceive unfairness, they dislike it and if they don’t see an understandable business justification, improper motives like discrimination pop into their heads to explain what they cannot otherwise understand.

Help your leaders understand how to do “good deeds” for employees in the right way. No flaunting the rules or treating some as second-class employees. To ensure that good deeds don’t cause the “punishment” of a complaint or lawsuit, make sure they are done with a view towards fair and consistent treatment of everyone. Good deeds done right are rewarded.