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How managers and employees can fight favoritism

Hui Liao poses for a faculty portrait against a grey background during the Fall 2009 Faculty/Staff photo shoot. Shot for the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Shot 9/14/2009 User Upload Caption: Hui Liao is the Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun
Hui Liao poses for a faculty portrait against a grey background during the Fall 2009 Faculty/Staff photo shoot. Shot for the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Shot 9/14/2009 User Upload Caption: Hui Liao is the Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. - Original Credit: For The Baltimore Sun (Handout / HANDOUT)

Ever get the sense of being left out of watercooler conversations, inside jokes and the fast track for promotions? Your manager might be playing favorites.

In one of the few studies on this topic, Georgetown University researchers surveyed 300-plus executives at companies with at least 1,000 employees. Key takeaways:

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  • 84% said favoritism takes place in their workplace.
  • 23% acknowledged practicing it themselves.
  • 9% said it was a factor in determining their last promotion.

Workplace favoritism — even the perception of it — is a pitfall that’s common and often overlooked. And for employees on the receiving end, favoritism violates the sense of fair play and takes a heavy toll on productivity and morale.

Favoritism ultimately is a two-sided affair involving managers and employees, and both sides can take steps to prevent the negative effects.

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This objective, though, can be challenging in companies that pursue and hire the “best and brightest” who can outsell, out-think, and out-produce their peers, but then place their prized recruits in collaborative groups and tell them to fit in.

Such higher-performing employees deserve to be recognized for their efforts. The criteria for this recognition must be clearly conveyed to employees. Therefore, managers, make sure your standards are legitimate, transparent, consistent and understood by your employees so that they do not perceive your deferential treatment as favoritism.

And be mindful of the hidden costs. Employees may not say anything about perceiving favoritism bestowed on a high-performing peer or peers. But they will withdraw psychologically, not put in as much effort and sometimes even undermine the work of others if they feel that the recognition or rewards are undeserved.

For employees, there are at least five different approaches to curbing the effects of workplace favoritism.

Stop and think. Step back and assess the alleged favoritism to determine if it is legitimate or simply performance-based recognition. If you want the treatment your co-workers are getting and believe you will get it through better performance, then it is probably not favoritism. Your supervisor may be treating people based on how they differentiate the levels of performance. Avoid the trap of labeling every difference in recognition that you observe in the workplace as favoritism.

Increase your value. A key to establishing a higher-quality relationship with your boss is to gain a better understanding of how to contribute more in the workplace. As an employee, your best currency is your expertise and your unique value added to the workplace. The more you can generate, the more your supervisor will value, trust and respect you.

Flip the script. Consider your supervisor’s perspective and what he or she might be looking for at this stage in their career. Ask yourself: What can I do to help? The more you help them, the more they can help you because it should be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Get social. Life’s golden rule of treating others the way you like to be treated applies in the workplace as well. Don’t just be all business and talking about work all the time. Show your interest for your supervisor as a person, because the quality of social relationships is a main reason why supervisors differentiate among workers .

Know your worth. In the event of clear favoritism or mistreatment, change the power dynamic, in part by showing how you can contribute unique value to the team. Oftentimes, a supervisor treats you unfairly because there is a greater dependency of you on them rather than vice versa. If you have a certain expertise or provide important resources that others do not, this will increase your supervisor’s dependence on you and prompt your supervisor to think twice before treating you in a way that can be perceived negatively.

Hui Liao is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. (Her recent paper “Hot Shots and Cool Reception?" in the Journal of Applied Psychology unravels the dilemma of integrating high performers in the workplace.)

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