Not all employees are created equal

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

I read that famous line in George Orwell's Animal Farm when I was a child, so it wasn't until years later that I fully appreciated how accurately it reflected the real world.

That line popped back in my head again this week, amid a fiery debate that has been brewing in Singapore regarding racial equality. In fact, it got so fiery that the country's founding father and former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, made a rare address during a parliament session Tuesday.

In his speech, Lee pointedly rebuked a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) who had called for changes to better reflect undisputed equality for all races in Singapore. The senior statesman noted that ideals of racial equality remain that--ideals...well, at least, for now.

Lee said: "Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the government not to treat everyone as equal. It's not reality, it's not practical. It will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle."

So, the Singapore pledge, which espouses a united population regardless of race or religion, "was an aspiration", he said. He noted that the U.S. Constitution, inked in 1776, pledged that "all men are created equal" but in fact, the blacks were not allowed to vote until decades later following the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

I would highlight, too, that the while Americans frequently proclaim the U.S. to be "land of the free" and home of the "free world", their Pledge of Allegiance today still includes the phrase "under god"--a line that atheists and socialists in the U.S. have taken issue with.

Pointing to the NMP's assumption that there is racial equality in Singapore, Lee added: "I think it was dangerous to allow such highfalutin ideas to go un-demolished and mislead Singapore."

His statements may be deemed a little extreme but he highlights a reality that I feel has been long overlooked--that a society devoid of discrimination remains, and could very well remain, utopia.

If it wasn't the color of your skin, you'll inevitably be judged by how heavy you tip the scale, how symmetrical your face is, how quick you can recite the multiplication table, or how big your bank account is.

As long as people can be pigeon-holed into categories, whether officially or socially, I believe there will always be discrimination in some form or another.

Unfortunately, the same rings through in any workplace. Not every employee has leadership qualities, not every worker can submit a project as quickly as another, and not every colleague carries equal level of skills, knowledge or aptitude.

Above all, we're not all equal in the workplace. Regardless of how linear the organizational structure may be, there'll always be a hierarchy of some sort. So unless you run your own shop, you'll always have a boss to whom you report, and there'll always be someone who has a right to the final say over yours. That's the business reality, that's the corporate world and that's something I myself have gradually learnt to accept as I chalked up more years in the workforce.

Does that mean we're doomed to remain a society seething with prejudice and partiality? Yes, we may never be rid of bigotry, but we can learn to live and work better with it.

Some preach the virtue of tolerance, but I don't think that's it at all. Tolerance suggests a compromise or sacrifice on someone's part, so that cannot be the best answer. Instead, I think it all boils down to one single trait, respect--basic respect for your colleagues and anyone you interact with, even if they hold beliefs and values that may not necessarily sit well with your own.

The crux of most conflicts today, be it in the workplace or society, is people's inability to afford a basic level of respect for their colleagues and their peers.

Unless you perceive yourself a deity, everyone is flawed. If we learn to accept the fact that no one is perfect, I think this world will be an easier place to live in.

That, however, cannot be a reason to be complacent, especially in the corporate landscape where no one is indispensable and your replacement is just a new hire away. And not all businesses are willing to settle for second best.

While I acknowledge that members in my team can't be perfect at everything they do, they know that I expect due effort from each of them to work on their weak points and strive for improvements.

Perfection may be unattainable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't seek it.

As Lee said, even if we may never achieve absolute equality for all, we can still aspire to do so. I think that's an important message many today fail to understand, along with the need to have basic respect for their neighbors.

To gain the respect of others, you have to first give it. German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe sums it up well: "Being brilliant is no great feat if you respect nothing."