It’s wonderful to have great chemistry with people who report to you. How could anything possibly be bad about that? When can the lines between effective relationship building and carrying it a step too far become blurred? See below for tips on how to avoid the favoritism trap.

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What Is Favoritism in the Workplace?

Teacher’s pet. Remember that phrase? That was the kid who always got the best desk, always got selected for the special tasks, got their question answered first when they held up their hand, and was always greeted with a warm smile from the teacher. They generally had no friends in their peer group. This phenomenon can translate into the adult working world in the form of favoritism that exists when an individual or group of individuals are treated differently at the expense of others.

What Are The Consequences of Favoritism in the Workplace?

Nothing good comes out of favoritism as a management practice. Here are a few of the possible pitfalls:

  • Negative team impact. Teammates who feel that others are getting preferential treatment based on their relationship with the manager are apt to develop a sense of resentment that can undermine a team’s ability to achieve goals.
  • Mistrust of management. Those who are witness to favoritism will quickly begin to guard their interactions with both the manager as well as the employees who are receiving the special treatment. Transparency and honesty on the team will take a back seat to cautious, sometimes paranoid team dynamics.
  • Loss of respect for leadership. Leaders suspected of playing favorites are frequently avoided. The loss of respect can lead to employee turnover, mistrust in that leader, and mistrust in how the whole organization is run.
  • Negative impact on productivity. Lowered morale and mistrust on a team will affect overall engagement and drive down productivity.
  • Regretted turnover. At some point, employees who feel slighted, underappreciated, and at a professional dead-end will just quit. Not all turnover is bad, but when you lose a trained and capable employee because others are being favored, it’s bad for the manager, the employer, and ultimately the team itself.

Examples of Favoritism in The Workplace

Favoritism can creep its way into the workplace in both subtle and overt ways. Here are a few examples to watch out for:

Preferential Shifts

In companies where employees request shifts, the appearance of favoritism is a risk unless there is a clearly communicated process that management follows without exception.

Performance Management

Counseling some employees for breach of policy while letting others slide through, being inconsistent in upholding the department or team rules, and turning a blind eye to certain employees’ transgressions are all forms of favoritism.

Time Off Approvals

This can be a sticky wicket. Be certain that one person isn’t always granted their time off while other(s) are denied. What does your tracking system look like? What data do you have that supports that you are being truly fair in approving employee time off?

Exposure and Opportunity

When the same person or group of people seem to get all of the access to developmental opportunities then favoritism likely exists. Examples can include special assignments, exposure to meetings that others don’t get, access to inside knowledge and/or initiatives, and access to executive leadership.

Promotions

When internal promotions are filled and announced without being posted for all qualified and interested employees to apply may leave people feeling that the only way to advance is based on “who you know” rather than what you know. If promotions go to people that look and sound exactly like those doing the promoting, you also risk discrimination claims.

How To Eliminate Favoritism in the Workplace

Here are some tips for companies to ensure favoritism isn’t allowed to flourish at work:

Communicate with Equal Cadence

If you are a leader, make sure that you are sharing your time equitably with each member of your team. Avoid excessive one-on-one time with a single person. Avoid going out to lunch with the same one person. Avoid after-work socialization with only one team member. Invite the whole team as a regular practice.

Develop Better Policies

Look at your policies with a critical eye toward fairness. Do your policies ensure that people are treated fairly when it comes to attendance, performance management, career advancement, and discipline? If the rules of the workplace are clear and clearly communicated, then the chances that everyone will play by the same rules are very good.

Understand Employees’ Goals and Motivations

The more you understand your employees, the more they will understand and trust you. Talk to them. Learn what motivates them to come to work. Learn what their personal and professional goals are. Show interest in your whole team, not just a select few.

Be Aware of “Optics”

A picture says a thousand words. That old adage still rings true. If an employee is seen often with their manager yet no one else seems to be, then the optics of favoritism will be in play. If a manager is speaking up in team meetings and offering praise to the same employee week after week, the favoritism rumor mill is bound to start up.

Communicate the “Why” Behind Actions to the Team

Be transparent with those you manage when you make decisions that concern the scope of work of members on your team. Explain why a certain person was promoted. Use experiences or facts rather than just personal attributes. Explain that you’d like to discuss some special assignment opportunities and hear back from anyone interested before you fill the assignment.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Favoritism

While not illegal, it is a very poor management practice.
Yes, it can be. Some individuals or groups are treated differently than others. This practice carries the same risks of discrimination in the workplace.
Having friends at work is known to drive engagement, but friendships can sometimes get in the way of fairness and result in favoritism when the friendship is between a supervisor and a subordinate. Those relationships must be managed carefully.

Milly Christmann is a high energy, operationally oriented talent management leader with extensive expertise in human resources, sales management, service and operations. She is recognized for collaborating with leaders to achieve their business goals by unleashing the power of an engaged workforce. By using process improvement, technology and strong, impassioned people skills as well as by attracting, developing and retaining top talent, Ms. Christmann drives change that matters.

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