Should a principal treat all staff members the same?

Q: I’m a high school principal and consider myself to be fair and reasonable. I have an employee — let’s call her Christine — who is extremely unreliable. She doesn’t get grades in on time, doesn’t always show up when it’s her turn to chaperone evening events, and generally is nowhere to be found when I need her. Recently, she asked me if she could attend a two-day professional development program without having to take unpaid leave. In all honesty, I have ignored school policy and been flexible with teachers on this issue in the past, and Christine knows this. On principle, I think teachers shouldn’t have to use unpaid leave to learn relevant skills and earn required continuing education credits. But, I frankly don’t feel like Christine deserves the same treatment as my more trustworthy staff members. What do you think?

A: I admire your willingness to bend rules under certain circumstances, and I bet your staff members appreciate your flexible approach to management. As you’re discovering, however, there can be unintended consequences, and Christine’s sense of entitlement is a case in point.

If you grant her request, she’ll continue to frustrate and drain you. Also, if the perception is that you reward underperformers and high fliers equally, that could affect staff morale. On the other hand, you need to be careful about optics. Do you tend to make exceptions for any subgroups, such as women or members of your leadership team? Are you inadvertently creating the impression that you play favorites? Here are several tips to help you strike this difficult balancing act.

Be judicious when it comes to exceptions.

Being accommodating, creative, and compassionate toward your staff is important. But make exceptions sparingly. If you’re too loose with policies, the result will be no rules. Be especially judicious with your untrustworthy employees. Exceptions are a privilege, not an entitlement, and Christine has not earned your trust. By granting her the same flexibility, you undermine your own authority. You also remove any impetus for her to change her behavior.

Set clear ground rules and be consistent about enforcement.

Regularly review policies with teachers and clearly state expectations. Follow through with logical consequences when staff members don’t execute on responsibilities. Be assertive, honest, and firm, and don’t be afraid to have these difficult conversations early and often, long before it’s a pattern. This situation shouldn’t be the first time Christine is learning about your disappointment in her unreliability. Explain why you aren’t accommodating her request, and hopefully the talks will motivate her to up her game.

You also don’t need to be the only one enforcing rules — enlist other administrators and school leaders to help you. At all times, model the behavior you want staff to emulate, and keep in mind that the worst behavior that you tolerate will eventually become the baseline or the norm.

Question rules.

If you find you’re constantly looking for a workaround to a nonsensical policy or that a disproportionate number of people are running into issues with a rule, examine it more closely. Perhaps it’s worth revisiting the policy with your own supervisor. You may end up helping eliminate or rewrite a rule that causes friction. As an added bonus, your staff will appreciate your proactive attempt to advocate for them.

Keep good records.

If a staff member frequently tests the limits of what they can get away with and tries everyone’s patience, start documenting the behavior. This will ensure that you’re objective and that you follow through on any established disciplinary process. It also will send the message that you only reward good behavior.

This is a long way of saying that I agree with you: Christine does not deserve the same treatment as your more trustworthy staff members.

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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