Not Everything is Black and White

Dealing with subjective judgment in the workplace.

Posted Jan 12, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Often, workplace advice is too pat. For example, "Have measurable goals."

Fact is, quality is not always best assessed by quantification. For example, should we evaluate a psychotherapist quantitatively? A musician? A writer?

Reducing an employee’s performance to a number is, well, reductionistic. That’s true even of ostensibly quantifiable jobs such as sales. Whether or not a salesperson meets the quota tells only part of the story. To what extent did the salesperson omit details about the product that might have appropriately led the customer to choose a competitor’s product? To what extent did the salesperson spend time helping the customer even though it didn't directly result in more sales? Shouldn't those things count?

The following dialogue dramatically addresses the issue of subjectivity in the workplace. Its goal is not to provide a pat answer because none is possible but hopefully to add nuance to your dealing with subjective decisions and to increase empathy for the person on the other side of the table.

Boss:  I need to put you on an improvement plan.

Supervisee: I don’t understand!  I take few sick days.  I come in on time. I’m supposed to write ten personalized thank-you letters to donors every day and I do. And not one donor has ever complained!

Boss: I know, but there’s something about the quality of those letters that doesn't make the donor want to donate more.

Supervisee: If you can't identify what's wrong, isn't that on you? How can you put me on an improvement plan?! That's the step before firing me!

Boss: I've given you as much specific feedback as I can, for example, that your letter should be informed by what’s in the donor’s dossier but somehow your letters just don't---okay, I'll be honest--They're not written intelligently enough for our donors' sophistication level.  I've shown you Sandy's letters as a model. I've taken a lot of time trying to work with you and it hasn't worked.

Supervisee: Do you have proof that Sandy's letters cause more donations?

Boss: We're a small nonprofit. It's not wise to take money from program to spend on tracking the impact of such small factors. More important ones would mask that.

Supervisee: So you're firing me for something about my writing you can't even explain?

Boss: Not everything can be quantified. And it's not just your writing. As I've told you, in staff meetings, most of your comments tend to be, well, not very insightful.

Supervisee: Yes, after some meetings, you point out things I say you don't like. But that's just your opinion. I think you're being racist and sexist.

The boss takes a deep breath. Today, few accusations are more serious. And in the diversity workshop, the instructor told the participants that everyone is racist and sexist.

Boss: (nervous)  I really don’t think so.

Supervisee: I’m going to talk with human resources, my union rep, with the EEOC, and with a lawyer.

Boss: Of course, that is your right.

The supervisee strides out. The boss’s heart is pounding.

The takeaway

If you were the boss, would you have said anything else or proposed to do anything else?

If you were the human resources person, what would you do?

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