By Dr. Erika Kawamura • October 12, 2011

When Does Favoritism Cross the Line?

Let’s face it, we’re all human. As much as people may deny it, parents may secretly (or not so secretly) have a favorite child and teachers have their favorite student. The workplace is no exception. Bosses have their favorite employees, and colleagues simply have better chemistry with certain peers. However, there comes a point when this camaraderie can negatively impact an organization and its employees, and in some cases, bring destructive consequences.

Let’s take a look at David, a senior manager in his business unit. Ever since Trevor joined David’s team as a direct report, the two have developed a close relationship. David quickly took Trevor under his wings as a mentor. They would also spend time outside of work, such as going out for drinks or attending sporting events. However, David’s behavior was not exclusive to Trevor, but also characterized his management style toward other employees. David valued developing others and would look for ways to provide developmental opportunities to his reports at every opportunity. David is aware of his close relationship with Trevor, but he is also conscientious about treating his employees fairly, rewarding them appropriately, and maintaining open communication on a regular basis. David makes an effort to prevent his personal relationship with Trevor to interfere with his professional responsibilities and strives to treat his employees fairly. Other co-workers recognize Trevor’s close relationship with David, but this realization does not erode organizational dynamics because of David’s close attention to maintaining professional boundaries at work and his commitment to treating all of his coworkers equally.
In contrast, Michelle holds a senior management position in her department and is often found chatting with one of her direct reports, Ron. It is quite apparent that Ron is her favorite report, and it is not helpful that Ron often flaunts this privilege. Other employees in the department feel frustrated because while they do receive some recognition, they’re more commonly operating from fear due to Michelle’s frequent criticisms. Michelle’s relationship with Ron made other staff feel isolated and degraded their level of trust in senior management. For instance, when several employees raised concerns over Ron’s performance, it was later turned around to make them feel as though it was their fault.In the case of Michelle and Ron, employee favoritism led to unfair treatment of employees and a culture that bred poor trust. This dynamic can place a team at risk for low morale, low employee satisfaction, increased conflict, and decreased lines of communication. Over time, this may lead to low productivity, performance issues, and high turnover, particularly among top talent.If the first scenario with David and Trevor sounds familiar, then keep attending to those lines between personal and professional settings, and continue maintaining open lines of communication with the rest of your staff and treating them fairly.

If the second scenario with Michelle and Ron sounds familiar, then it is encouraged to begin taking steps to improve your skills of balancing personal and professional relationships to reduce the likelihood of harmful consequences to the organization, as discussed above. Here are some tips to start the process:

  • Take a step back and conduct a relationship audit. Reflect on your workplace behaviors and relationships, and make an honest evaluation of the consequences that certain actions are having on the rest of the employees, overall performance, and overall organization. Why did you behave in the way you did? Did you react out of emotion (e.g. anger, fear, uncertainty about loyalty)? What were you trying to communicate? Are there other constructive ways to deliver your message? With whom do you have other positive relationships? Negative? Neutral? Why?
  • Solicit regular feedback. No matter how senior your role, we all have blindspots and the way to resolve these hidden obstacles is to regularly seek feedback from trusted peers, coworkers, and your reports.
  • Learn how to give constructive feedback. Instead of delivering criticisms, blame, or covering up a person’s error, describe the facts of the situation, explain why his/her behavior or performance was not optimal, and offer an alternative approach; try to identify at least one thing the person did well or a positive quality. Ask for his/her thoughts and actively LISTEN to their feedback. Even our favorite employees make mistakes and have areas to improve.
  • Get coaching. If you feel you could benefit from coaching to maintain a healthy balance with your favorite employee/s and the rest of the staff, or to save an organization from quickly heading toward the potentially harmful consequences due to favoritism, please contact one of our AIIR consultants today at [email protected]