When Favoritism in the Workplace is a Good Thing
Favoritism in the workplace is generally perceived as a negative thing. Experts and business leaders like Lynn Taylor (workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job) talk about how favoritism has a toxic effect on the workplace culture, saying it can start as something benign but develop into a hostile environment for others.
But favoritism in the workplace doesn’t always lead to terrible outcomes. Sometimes, it can even create better, more productive workplace cultures. To build up rather than tear down via playing favorites, it’s important for managers to take careful, well-thought-out approaches to the tactic. But we’ll get to that. Here, we discuss the dos and don’ts of playing favorites at work.
Playing Favorites: Everyone Does It — But Not Always Right
A whopping 92% of senior business executives have seen favoritism at play in employee promotions, and a quarter of executives admitted to practicing favoritism themselves according to a 2011 survey conducted by Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
The study respondents defined favoritism as giving preferential treatment to employees based on factors other than qualifications and performance, such as friendship or connections. It’s there that the problem lies.
The Wrong Way to Use Favoritism in the Workplace
Misplaced priorities cause most of the negative impacts attributed to favoritism. Misplaced priorities, of course, being those that choose favorites due to factors not related to the workplace.
Disparaging others — “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?” — or favoring people based on arbitrary factors like shared interests or similar personalities leads to negative outcomes. When managers prioritize things that are unrelated to work, and are therefore unable to be achieved by everyone, it makes the workplace feel like a constant popularity contest.
Instead of motivating other employees to strive to do better, this type of favoritism can lead to envy, discontent, and an atmosphere of resentment. This, in turn, can de-motivate employees and damage team unity. It can also cause managers to overlook growth opportunities and unique skill sets offered by others — the “unfavorites.”
The Right Way to Use Favoritism in the Workplace
Now that we’ve talked about how not to play favorites, let's focus how to do it correctly and how it can benefit an organization. The right way to use favoritism in the workplace is to be transparent, careful, and selective about methods and to show favoritism for the right reasons — a.k.a. reasons related exclusively to job performance and at-work behavior. This type of favoritism can actually make employees feel more motivated and empowered.
Proof of these positive outcomes was outlined in a 2013 study by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, which was published in the Journal of Business Ethics. The study found that employees who were favored a little more than others experienced heightened self-esteem and were more likely to follow workplace norms and perform tasks that benefit the entire group. The favored employees were also perceived as both more social and more productive by coworkers.
“There’s a risk that treating some employees better than the rest can turn others off," said Professor Karl Aquino, one of the study's authors. "The key is to find the right balance — treat everyone reasonably well, but treat those whose work counts most or who have been most productive just a little bit better.”
Although the study only focuses on how those being favored react to the favoritism, evidence suggests that favored employees are motivated to comply with norms and to engage in tasks that benefit the group as a whole, which means non-favored employees also benefit. When done right, everyone wins.
That said, let’s get into the dos and don’ts.
What Not to Do When Playing Favorites in the Workplace
- Don’t just favor the employees you hired yourself over ones you inherited
- Don’t favor employees based on factors other than work, such as friendship or shared interests (have children, own pets, like the outdoors, like a genre of music, etc.)
- Don't compare one employee to another
These things send the message that favoritism isn’t earned but bestowed, based not on performance but on unspecified preferences. That can be damaging to workplace morale and productivity.
The Right Way to Play Favorites in the Workplace
- Do show preference to employees who work or try harder, perform better, and deliver more consistent results
- Do reward employees who are willing to collaborate and compromise
- Do motivate and empower employees in ways that benefit the entire team — when someone performs above and beyond, praise them, reward them, and then include everyone in the celebration to encourage them all to aim high and achieve
In sum, favoritism in the workplace can be a good thing. By showing preferential treatment to employees from time to time based on performance, they can feel a greater sense of self-worth in their jobs, tend to stick around longer, and, eventually, may become effective leaders themselves. For more tips on how to positively engage employees, see this article on alternative ways to encourage employee engagement.