BY SUSAN ROSE
Go ahead, admit it: You have a favorite employee or maybe even employees. Your clients will have a favorite chauffeur, just like your manager probably has a favorite client. It’s natural to click with certain people and want to spend more time with them on a professional or even a personal level. Trouble arises, however, when that personal bias affects your ability to be critical of their performance, or when preferential treatment of a few leads to more mobility or freedom that isn’t afforded to others in similar positions. To be clear: It’s not “picking favorites” by giving some latitude to a 30-year veteran lead chauffeur over a six-month chauffeur trainee who is still learning, but it’s a problem when your lead dispatcher is only giving the lucrative runs to a certain chauffeur because he’s also a buddy.
RED FLAG: If you want a healthy and happy team, favoritism should only be based on performance. While it isn’t necessary illegal to have favorites, you can veer into legal hot water when it’s based on gender, creed, age, or any other protected class.
Favoritism can take on many faces and you might not even realize that you’re doing it. Subtle favoritism might include listening and responding favorably to suggestions from only certain managers, while always shooting down the ideas of others. Sure, he could always make great suggestions and everyone else’s are less than stellar, but are you sure it’s not because your wives are friends? It could be consistently taking one employee over others in an equal role to off-site meetings or conferences, or offering training to only a few reservationists because you feel that others “won’t” or “can’t” learn new skills—thus giving them few professional development opportunities and special connections to help with their upward trajectory. A favorite could be subject to less scrutiny while others would be singled out or reprimanded for doing the same things. Did you receive tickets from a client that you can’t use? If you’re only offering them to a select few employees again and again instead of spreading the perks around, you could be guilty of favoritism. More overt favoritism could be nepotism, whether it’s a family member or just the guy you’ve known for 30 years and who comes to dinner twice a month. Some companies go so far as to enact a “no friends” policy between managers and subordinates to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Many HR and legal experts discourage the practice of favoritism because it can be counter-productive to an inclusive workplace, especially when it can lead to legal challenges or send companywide morale plunging into the toilet. But some believe that it can have a positive impact in the workplace—in the right situations and for the right reasons, of course.
PRO: Cy Wakeman, business consultant and author, writes in her book, No Ego, that picking favorites among your team can encourage competition. Investing interest in the folks who add value to your organization by always getting the job done with little or no drama can motivate others to deliver their best results or strive for those added perks. By virtue of being the boss’ favorite, those employees can serve as a model. Who doesn’t like being rewarded? Wakeman leaves the door open for anyone to become a favorite—it could theoretically be the whole team in her view. She also notes that the workplace isn’t a democracy, and having that competitive nature can help employees better adapt to change and thinking on their feet.
“Not spreading out the assignments or including other people in the mix could be holding you back from discovering a fresh perspective.”
It doesn’t hurt to nudge your team out of their comfort zone, but there is such a thing as unhealthy competition. It’s a fine line. Problems arise when that benchmark is unobtainable by other employees due to circumstances beyond their control, especially when favoritism is based on anything other than merit. We all know that one person who will step on whomever they need to in order to get ahead. When everyone is always competing for the affections of the boss, it can become a vicious workplace, one where quiet hard-workers who stay out of the fray are eclipsed by squeaky wheels who demand more of the boss’ eyes and ears. They get left behind while others get exhausted and stop being engaged. It can breed resentment, and worse, it can lead to dishonest behavior by favorites who are desperate to hang on to their title or sabotage from those who feel overlooked—thus, creating a new type of drama you thought you were avoiding in the first place. If you’re finding that your workplace is less Avengers and more Game of Thrones, you’ve lost your team mentality. Try celebrating victories as a team for a while rather than publically singling out the same old few favorites.
PRO: Giving coveted or critical assignments to your go-to people is smart for your business because you know that the job will get done well, they will be accountable for their actions, and your customers will be pleased with their experience with your company. Of course you want the best person to do the right job, so your favorite should be rewarded accordingly. It could encourage others to step up their profile so they too can get a chance at those assignments or taking on new responsibilities.
According to the Harvard Business Review, always going to your favorite has a disadvantage: burnout. Yes, there is a dark side to being the favorite! Reliable employees are worth their weight in gold, but they also need downtime and vacation. If you find that you’re consistently coaxing your best chauffeurs to work on their days off, or handing off that urgent VIP request to your reservationist ... again ... while everyone else left the office hours ago, it might be time to evaluate why they are your go-to people, and why the rest of the team aren’t. You also might be guilty of using your relationship to take advantage of the situation. Plus, you may end up losing a favorite because they don’t want the attention and feel isolated from others on the team due to the status they feel they don’t deserve or desire.
On the flip side, many times a favorite’s unproductive or distracting behavior will be excused or ignored by those in charge. If your favorite is always getting preferential treatment like desired days off around holidays or exciting new projects simply because they are a friend, you might have your answer to why others aren’t stepping up to give their all to the company.
PRO: Wakeman’s theory is that everyone can have a seat at the favorite table because it’s about the value that the employee adds to the organization overall. It’s the completion of the task and the attitude to take on more that becomes the equalizer, not the person’s position within the company or personal connection to the boss or manager. Everyone can have a chance to shine.
CON: It’s a natural tendency to rely on your grinders who will always churn it out, but are you or your managers overlooking talent? Not spreading out the assignments or including other people in the mix could be holding you back from discovering a fresh perspective. By rewarding only a select few, you might not realize there’s a diamond in the rough right under your nose. Also, be honest with yourself about your favorite and the subtle divisions you (or your managers) may create. Are they really the right person for that promotion? Are you answering their email first or giving them prime meeting slots during your busy schedule to the detriment of your other employees who may have to wait hours or days to get your attention? Are you only picking that person because you enjoy their company, or because you don’t want to make the effort with an equally (or more) capable employee with whom you don’t have a personal connection? Are you creating an echo chamber of favorite yes-men instead of embracing those employees who challenge you?
Has an employee commented that you or one of your managers always seems to pick one employee over others? Third parties can often identify it easier than we can. Start by listening openly and carefully to determine whether it’s a matter of just handing out a critical assignment to the most qualified person because of their skill set, or if it’s a consistent pattern that needs to be addressed. It’s a good gut-check moment. [CD0220]