There is little to no harm in having a favorite book, favorite flavor of ice cream, or a favorite place to work.
In the workplace though, favoritism is dangerous, toxic, and in some cases, illegal.
As an Enquiron article noted, “All people possess implicit biases, which wire our brain to categorize people and things subconsciously even when we actively try to reject prejudices. These can cause us to naturally favor those with similar interests and backgrounds.”
So, while it’s human nature to have favorites, as leaders it’s of the utmost importance you actively reject any actions or behaviors that are or can be seen as favoritism.
Unfortunately, the reality is not all leaders have heeded this warning. In a study conducted by researchers from Penn Schoen Berland and Georgetown University of senior executives at companies with at least 1,000 employees, it was found that favoritism is alive and well, in big and small ways. Here are some of their findings, specifically related to promotions:
- 56 percent of bosses already have a 'favorite' in mind for a promotion before the formal review process begins.
- Once the review process is over, the predetermined favorite gets the promotion a stunning 96 percent of the time, even though 94 percent of respondents said their company has procedures in place to prevent favoritism in promotions and four out of five respondents said their companies have a formal process in place for choosing who gets promoted.
- 75 percent of the survey respondents say they have witnessed favoritism, while 23 percent admit they practice favoritism. This is especially interesting since 83 percent say this sort of unfairness leads to worse decisions in promoting people. In other words, some people are practicing favoritism and not even fooling themselves that it's a good idea.
20 Signs of Favoritism at Work
The following is an extensive list of examples of favoritism in the workplace, as found in a research study from Central Michigan University. Some of the signs listed are outright examples of favoritism, while others may be more subtle displays of favoritism that over time, create a problem among leaders and employees.
- Spends more time having informal interactions with certain employees (ex. joking, non-work related conversations).
- Spends more time talking with certain employees about work-related topics (ex. assignments, plans).
- Has an open door policy only for certain employees.
- Lets it pass or uses their formal authority to cover up certain employees' mistakes.
- Favors certain employees in the allocation of workload (it can either be more over time or lighter workload).
- Favors certain employees in the allocation of limited resources over others (ex. budget, technology, staff).
- Gives certain employees additional help and coaching during the completion of assignments.
- Gives certain employees more praise for accomplishments that others do not get praised for.
- Favors certain employees when making decisions or recommendations regarding promotions or pay.
- Assigns desired tasks to certain employees.
- Assists certain employees with career development and not others.
- Gives certain employees performance evaluations that they do not deserve.
- Gives certain employees more frequent and timely feedback.
- Lets certain employees get away with actions that other employees would be reprimanded for.
- Considers the suggestions of only certain employees.
- Reviews certain employees’ work more quickly than others' work with similar priority levels.
- Looks the other way when certain employees waste time.
- Is more flexible in terms of absences (ex. tardiness, vacations, sickness) for certain employees and not others.
- Sides with certain employees in matters of employee disagreements/disputes.
- Passes along important work-related information only to certain employees.
3 Things Employees Can Do About Favoritism at Work
Rationally Assess the Situation
Before you do anything, take the necessary time to assess the situation as rationally as you can. Think back to the exact situation where you believe you experienced favoritism. Consider all the possible reasons another employee received the treatment they did. Did they have a technical qualification, interpersonal skill, or relationship, that would have influenced your leader’s actions or decisions? Once you have assessed the situation, you will be more sure of what you want to be your next step to be.
Talk to a Mentor
In these types of situations, it can be extremely beneficial to consult a mentor who is removed from the situation. You should present them with your rational assessment of the situation and share your desired course of action. They may wholeheartedly agree with your assessment, somewhat agree, or flat out disagree. Whatever their response may be, try to remain open to any constructive feedback they have to offer. The insights an impartial individual can provide may be exactly what you need to effectively deal with the favoritism you are experiencing.
Stand Up For Yourself
If you have done the previous two things, then you have done your due diligence and can confidently move forward with your action plan, which may mean standing up for yourself. If you do, make sure to provide any examples or evidence of favoritism you have, speak with clarity, and above all, remain confident in your convictions.
3 Things Leaders Can Do About Favoritism at Work
Identify Your Unconscious Biases
This is no easy or small task, but it is important if you’re committed to rooting out any actions or behaviors that are leading you to play favorites, even unconsciously. Fortunately, online tools and tests are a great way to get started. For example, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) was created by researchers at Harvard University to help individuals identify thoughts and feelings outside of their conscious awareness/control that influence one’s preferences for certain social groups over others.
Don’t Wait For Something to Go Wrong to Take Action
While you may not be currently showing any signs of favoritism at work, that doesn’t mean you cannot take precautions. If you want to reduce the chances of favoritism occurring, draft up processes you believe will help. Then ask your team members for their input or constructive feedback on the proposed processes. This will not only make the processes stronger, but it will also make employees feel invested in your efforts, which comes in handy during the next step. Finally, get their buy-in and support for seeing those processes through. Together, it is possible to root out behaviors and actions that cause others to feel like someone is “playing favorites.”
Seek Out the Support of a Leadership Coach
On the other hand, if you want to tackle your unconscious biases or gain an awareness of how your actions are interpreted by others, then the support of a leadership coach may be greatly beneficial. Using their training, qualifications, and real-world experience, a coach will work alongside you for a given period of time to challenge your ways of thinking, provide feedback on specific scenarios, and act as a sounding board when you encounter a challenge, all of which is very helpful in this type of situation.
Favoritism at work can jeopardize the trust employees have in their leaders or their teammates, breed resentment, create conflicts, and undermine collaboration. In fact, a study by the O.C. Tanner Institute found that favoritism can stifle engagement and increase the odds of employee burnout by 23%. This highlights what was stated earlier - favoritism is dangerous and toxic. Fortunately, if leaders and employees know the signs of favoritism, then you can hold each other mutually accountable for stopping favoritism in its tracks.
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