Favoritism in the workplace is bad. There’s little debate about that. If a manager favors his or her friends, college buddies, fellow poker players or baseball fans, sorority sisters, or whatever, this can have a highly negative impact on the morale and productivity of those who are not favored. So if you’re a manager who is doing this, stop it!
Favoritism can also be illegal. If a manager favors those of a particular protected class (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), it can be discrimination against those who are disfavored. Similarly, if a manager retaliates against employees who have complained about, e.g., workplace safety or harassment, by favoring those who haven’t complained, that can be illegal retaliation. If a manager favors his or her romantic partner, that’s more complicated – it’s not good for morale or productivity, but may or may not be illegal depending on the circumstances.
Thus far we’ve talked about real favoritism. What’s more complex but not uncommon is employees who wrongly perceive favoritism when it’s really just management tending to turn to good workers rather than those who are not. An example: Employee “Gallant” is reliable, hard-working, and committed. Employee “Goofus” is none of these. [This is a test of your age, by the way. My older readers will get the references in these names; others may not.] Manager selects Gallant for special projects more than he or she selects Goofus – and selection for special projects is a coveted perk.
Many Goofuses will perceive this as unfair favoritism, as opposed to seeing that the manager is selecting the employee who will get the work done. This can create problems, particularly when Goofus decides that the alleged favoritism is not only unfair but is illegal discrimination or retaliation – often not that hard a case to make even if it’s not true.
So what can an employer do to try to prevent such situations? Often the problem is that the manager does not realize how his or her selection process appears to others. It just seems obvious: I’ll select the best person for the job. But one can’t necessarily expect Goofus to have the self-insight to understand what’s going on. It is essential, therefore, for managers to be sensitive to perceived favoritism and to explain to Goofus (and the workgroup in general) how the selection process works and how employees can qualify.
Done in a supportive, not punitive, manner (and without holding up Gallant as an example of what to strive for) this can serve as an incentive for Goofus and the workgroup as a whole to improve their performance.
Will this always work? Of course not: some employees are unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable and will always blame others. But if management’s efforts to create a level playing field are documented, at least it will have some defense against potential lawsuits alleging discrimination or harassment.
Any other thoughts out there? ~Amy Stephson