Favouritism At Work: Are You A Boss’s Pet? 3129

Favouritism at work
Favouritism at work
Manavi Pathak, Head, Talent and Leadership Development, TATA Trent

It is natural to like some employees more than others, but playing favourites at work is a dangerous game. Workplace favouritism can destroy trust in an organisation and wreak havoc on the overall morale of the company. Then, how to prevent favouritism in the workplace? Let us understand.

Let us go back to our school days. Do you remember that annoyingly perfect student who sat in the front row of your class and had a panic attack when he or she got less than A+ on any assignment and always received special attention from the teacher? Just like our classroom’s prized pupils, organisations have their own share of boss’s pets. Surprisingly, when asked as a leader do you play favourites at work? Few managers acknowledge or admit to it.

Needless to say that it’s common knowledge that favouritism has a long history in the workplace or organisations. According to a survey by Georgetown University (2019), many managers and bosses play favourites when they are figuring out whom to promote – meaning that they base their decision on factors, other than the person’s abilities, background, or even ideology. But how widespread is it? 

23 percent of more than 300 senior executives in the United States admitted to practising favouritism in determining promotions, with 9 percent saying it played a role in deciding their last promotion. 56 percent of the bosses said that they often have a favourite in mind before a formal review process begins, and 96 percent of the time those favourites get promoted. What is interesting is that most of those surveyed – 83 percent said that this sort of decision making can often lead to poor business choices. 

But apparently, they are doing it anyway. Unfortunately, there is not much that employees can do to combat this, other than working hard and staying on their bosses’ good side. However, 94 percent of those surveyed said that their company had procedures in place to prevent favouritism in promotions. But apparently, the procedures are not favoured.

Also read: Managing the Tide of “The Great Resignation”

Why does it happen?

It is not easy to explain and the issue is pretty complex. Long-standing bodies of work in genetics point to humans’ deeply wired bias of replicating themselves through succeeding generations. This impels parents to tilt in favour of their healthiest, biggest offspring. A similar explanation has been offered for favouritism or bias at the workplace and in dating relationships. Some managers tend to unintentionally identify with people of their own gender, community, or socioeconomic class. Such identifications may subtly influence judgement about which employees perform better. Managers may give better job reviews to employees they like for whatever reason. For example, personable employees with good communication skills can ingratiate themselves with managers and improve the perception of their actual performance.

According to Social Psychology, this process can be explained by how individuals organise and interpret their environment. It is true that what is perceived can be substantially different from objective reality. People’s behaviour is based on their perception of what reality is, not on reality itself. We all stereotype people to some extent. We tend to put people in boxes – to say, “That’s just the way they are.” But some managers take it to an extreme, refusing to see that employees can change and that shortcomings aren’t the result of incurable genetic defects. Unless an employee has “fast track” written all over him, these managers withhold challenging roles and useful feedback. According to Dr. Ruchi Sinha, University of South Australia – Fundamentally, favouritism shows a disregard for competence and attributes such as dependability and reliability – all of which are signals of trust – while favouring personal friendships and instrumental reciprocity.

Identify favouritism at work

  • You spend more time supervising certain employees and thinking about ways to enhance their careers
  • You enjoy talking to some employees more than others
  • You dread conducting certain evaluations but look forward to conducting others
  • You relax when talking to some employees but feel tense when communicating with others, even those who perform well

 Least favoured status

Research with thousands of executives from around the world indicates that behaviour of bosses towards underperforming employees is pretty much universal regardless of culture or nationality. Based on the interviews and direct observation of bosses – it is clear that subordinates are highly sensitive to the comparative signals sent out by their bosses. What would be the long-term damage of favouritism? “It lowers the morale of the employee and results in motivational problems,” says a sales executive who has gone through the pain of being the second-best in the initial years of his job. Psychologist Victoria Bedford has studied favouritism extensively, looking at the impact of what’s known as the Least Favoured Status (LFS) on children’s self-esteem, socialisation, and relationships with other family members.

Results showed that children who feel less loved than others have a higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Favouritism leads to “in-group” and “out-group” feelings, imaginary boundaries created by the leaders in the organisation. The “out-group” members feel left out and lose trust in the boss and the organisation as a whole. The HR manager of a renowned consulting firm reported that this behaviour is reported frequently during the exit interviews. It is at that time that the individuals feel fearless and share their woes with the organisational members. Favouritism at work can destroy trust in an organisation and its leaders. For an organisation to thrive it is important for people to work well together and managers need to develop a good working relationship with their subordinates as well as their superiors.

“Favouritism leads to “in-group” and “out-group” feelings, imaginary boundaries created by the leaders in the organisation. The “out-group” members feel left out and lose trust in the boss and the organisation as a whole. The HR manager of a renowned consulting firm reported that this behaviour is reported frequently during the exit interviews.”

Also read: LGBTQ+ Inclusivity: Here’s How Novo Intends To Make A Difference (allthingstalent.org)

Advice to managers

It is amazing to see how people fail to see their own biases towards certain individuals. If you ask managers “Do you play favourites in your team?” Very few would agree or acknowledge this. However, the fact is that most managers do have some employees they are more compatible with than others. That is human nature. Also, most managers play favourites with the justification that the favoured employee is a great employee. Whatever be the reason, playing favourites at the workplace is a bad practice. It starts a chain reaction of jealousy among other employees, which could, in turn, lead to conflict and a toxic work environment. Worse yet, it may escalate to an organisational level issue where top management will have to intervene. Does it scare you enough? I hope so. Playing favourites should at best be avoided. A piece of advice: If you absolutely must have a favourite employee, keep it to yourself. The very perception of unfavoured treatment is bad. If you have a few ‘favourites’ in your team, do not try to go overboard to shower your praises or compliments so that it results in motivational or political issues in the team. 

The following suggestions would go a long way to reduce the adverse impact of “favouritism” at work:

First, managers should make efforts to recognise and be sensitive to individual differences. Employees have different needs. One needs to spend time to understand what is important to each employee. When bosses get to know subordinates they are less likely to make snap judgments, hasty attributions, or unfounded generalisations. This allows him or her to individualise goals, level of involvement and rewards to align with individual needs.  Research has shown that most managers spend the majority of their development efforts on only 20 percent of their employees – the high performers. Managers need to develop positive dynamics with all their subordinates including their weaker performers. When there is a personal rapport, subordinates are more likely to report problems and handle criticism more constructively because they feel that the boss is capable of making a distinction between them and their performance.

“Managers should make efforts to recognise and be sensitive to individual differences. Employees have different needs. One needs to spend time to understand what is important to each employee. When bosses get to know subordinates they are less likely to make snap judgments, hasty attributions, or unfounded generalisations.”

Second, employees should have firm, special goals and they should get feedback on how well they are faring in pursuit of those goals. Third, regular dialogue with the employees is a critical point in reducing the barrier to communication between the employer and the employee. Managers should allocate specific time during a week/fortnight to have a one on one with the employees. Also, to prevent misunderstandings from polluting a relationship, bosses can be more explicit about their own style – how they work and what they do and also what they don’t like. Such clarity goes a long way towards preventing the kind of misunderstandings that can trigger a boss’s doubts and negative performance labels. 

Fourth, managers should ensure that rewards should be contingent on performance. Importantly, employees must perceive a clear linkage between performance and rewards. Regardless of how closely rewards are actually correlated to performance criteria, if individuals perceive this relationship to be low, the result will be low performance, a decrease in job satisfaction, and an increase in turnover and absenteeism. Most organisations would prefer to stay away from all of these.

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Manavi is a seasoned HR professional with over 15 years of experience in HR Consulting and Academics. Prior to this, she has worked with some big names in the industry namely, TATA Motors, Cipla, KPMG to name a few. An alumna of XLRI Jamshedpur, she has done her Ph.D. in Organisational Behaviour. Her specialities include – Talent Management, Psychometrics, Assessment, Leadership Development, Competency Mapping, Organisational Change, and Executive Coaching.

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