Discrimination is a dirty word — workplace discrimination doubly so. But if you don’t want your star workers leaving, a bit of favoritism goes a long way, according to William Tincup, CEO of Tincup & Co, an HR consultancy.

We interviewed the popular, often-brash Mr. Tincup following a talk he gave at the Disrupt HR 2016 Cayman conference, where he made the case to a crowd of HR pros gathered in Grand Cayman that organizations with “Michael Jordans” should never treat them like “B.J. Armstrongs.” Here’s what we learned:

4 Lessons About Preferential Treatment

Workplace favoritism based on discrimination, harassment or retaliation is not only bad policy, it’s against the law. But favoritism based on how much employers genuinely value a worker is not just legal, it could be the key to unlocking their star potential.

Forget what you know about the “Golden Rule.” This idea goes against every fibre of most HR managers, who are tasked not only with keeping workplaces up to standard, but know that standards exist to prevent unfair treatment. It also means taking on more work, as treating employees “as if everyone’s a Twinkie, or a pencil, or an inanimate object” is the path of least resistance.

But people are not like objects, Tincup argues. No two people are equal nor will ever be. The most important job of HR being to retain top talent, accomplishing that means accepting the Pareto Principle in that 20 percent of employees who bring 80 percent of the value to the table.

“Do you honestly think that in practice Michael Jordan did the exact same things as B.J. Armstrong? Of course not. So why in our organizations is it okay to take the Michael Jordans and treat them like B.J. Armstrongs?”

– William Tincup, CEO of

Tincup & Co.

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Accept that great employees are worth special treatment. The Michael Jordan of your organization isn’t someone you want to lose. When it came to in-game performance, putting His Airness side-by-side with just about anyone was no comparison, a fact which translated to his treatment off the court.

“Do you honestly think that in practice Michael Jordan did the exact same things as B.J. Armstrong?” said Tincup during his presentation. “Do you think they were treated the same way? Of course not. He was special. He was fantastic. The Chicago Bulls would have been morons had they not treated him differently.

“So why in our organizations is it okay to take the Michael Jordans and treat them like B.J. Armstrongs?”

Playing favorites can be fair. Just as a workplace romance is not automatically sexual harassment, neither does preferential treatment always mean an illegal act. But if the distinction arises due to qualities covered by equal employment law — race, gender, ethnicity, pregnancy, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, and the list goes on — it can amount to unlawful discrimination. The threat of an investigation or lawsuit is why many companies tend to view their workforces as a sea of blank faces.

Tincup’s advice: Treat your stars as stars, focus on keeping them happy, and don’t worry about lawsuits. That probably won’t mean perks or pay bumps, either; it’s often more about taking performance hurdles out their way. If a great performer would rather not do the work of, say, filling out routine expense reports, it’s not arrogance for them think their time could be elsewhere better spent, but a pragmatic financial calculation based on their skills.

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Where fairness hawks might say no, it’s everyone’s job to fill expense reports, smart companies might say great, done, what else?

“If you get incrementally more value out of your A player, it dwarfs in comparison,” said Tincup.

If you don’t know who your star players are, you won’t keep them. If your business was facing ruin and you could only keep the people you needed, who would they be? Answering that question is step one. The next is opening a dialogue to find out just what you can do to help your best employees become that much better.

What often gets in the way is that the people tasked with retaining top talent do not understand that much of what HR does to standardize treatment is unfair as it relates to an organization’s most valued employees. They may treat them all equally, but equal is not always fair.

Some Are More Equal Than Others

We need to start falling out of love with standards. HR must be willing to make the business case to senior leaders that the best players drive the most value, and so investing in the making them feel more valued is worth making tailored accommodations.

The Pareto Principle certainly applies in business today. Do you agree? Tell us below.

William Tincup is CEO of Tincup & Co. Follow him on Twitter @williamtincup.

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