Favoritism in the Workplace

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Favoritism in the Workplace

Favoritism in the workplace constitutes unequal treatment of employees. Is it the responsibility of the boss to be impartial, to be fair (Frost, 18)? Websters dictionary defines favor as friendly regard; approval or partiality. Favoritism is defined as partiality; bias. Therefore, we see that the essence of favoritism is partiality on the part of the boss. The boss may show his favor toward one employee over another, either openly or discreetly. The supervisor may show favor in any number of ways. He may give to the worker gifts like pens, or calendars, or tickets to events. Moreover, the supervisor may show favor in a more personal manner by socializing with the worker on any number of levels, from talking or joking with the worker while at work, to eating lunch with the worker, to inviting the worker and their family over for dinner, or on vacation. All of these actions, as well as many more subtle actions may show favor on the part of the boss toward the worker. Conversely, favoritism is unfair and an inappropriate use of power. In a perfect world, pay raises, promotions, hiring, and the application of rules would be merit based. An employee who has excelled in his field would be able to move up the ladder of success. The supervisor’s brother-in-law, the employee with the tight sweater, or the ambitious woman who is sleeping her way to the top, would not bypass him or her. Displays of favoritism, or even its perception, can destroy relationships, initiative, and trust (OEC, 00). It is important that each of us have a relationship with our supervisor or manager that is built on trust, candor, and fairness. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Some supervisors have compromised their authority and the respect they could command by allowing favoritism, real or perceived.

Ethical Dilemma

Unprofessional relationships between supervisor and employee promote unequal treatment. The danger of abuse of authority and the perception of favoritism is always present. The ability of a supervisor or manager to influence (directly or indirectly), assignments, promotions, training opportunities, awards, and other employment opportunities places both the supervisor or manager and the subordinate in a vulnerable position (SAF, 18). Supervisors and managers are in leadership positions, which require the maturity and judgment to avoid relationships that impede the efficiency of the service or adversely affect performance.

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Two-thirds of us believe office romances wreak havoc on the morale of coworkers (Rossheim, 001). At the same time, two-thirds of us grow indignant when employers attempt to regulate their employees intimate relationships. Rosemary Agonito, a Syracuse, New York, consultant and author of Dirty Little Secrets Sex in the Workplace believes that companies should go further in codifying guidance to employees. I think its a mistake to have no policy at all, she says. When dealing with liaisons between peers, employers must strike a balance. Forbidding these relationships just drives them underground, says Agonito. But employers can require disclosure of relationships. Such a disclosure might lead to the transfer of one of the employees involved in a boss-subordinate relationship, or to the signing of a dating waiver”, in which both employees agree theyve entered the relationship willingly.

Numerous situations play out favoritism. The type of business, the number of employees, or the number of supervisors can change the severity of an action. Favoritism can be blatant or subtle. Do you have people in your office that dislike each other (Smith, 00)? Do they cause problems for everyone else? Conflict in the workplace is a painful reality. The goal is to recognize friction and tension and deal with it before it escalates into a major problem. One point is clear--conflict does not magically go away if ignored. Certain types of conflict in the workplace, such as sexual harassment and discrimination, are obvious and readily identified. Other forms of conflict are not. Small, irritating events that occur repeatedly over time may cause one individual to strike out at another. Managers who exhibit favoritism toward one or more employees set themselves up for problems with the “non-favored”. Employees who find ways to appear busy while doing nothing can easily create dissatisfaction among the rest of the department. Conflict may develop when an employee, because he or she did not fully understand the job responsibilities, receives an unsatisfactory job evaluation.

Often, there is a difference of opinion depending on the vantage point. If you get a promotion ahead of her, it is favoritism. If she gets a job ahead of you, it is equal opportunity. If you make a decision without consulting her, you are a chauvinist. If she makes a decision without consulting you, she is a liberated woman. Consequently, before taking any action against a supervisor, discuss the situation with people outside the problem.

Nepotism and favoritism are unethical business practices. Although, it is natural for a supervisor or manager to trust, respect, and depend upon one employee more than another -- a result of experience, common interests, goals, or backgrounds, or simply the longevity of their successful relationship. However, each of us should work to create an environment where people are valued as individuals and treated with respect and dignity, fairness and equality. That leaves no room for displays of favoritism. Favoritism is insidious. It creeps into the workplace and shows itself when we least expect it. It destroys relationships and trusts. It feeds on our initiative. It lives in the shadows. We must always be alert to its presence and suppress it.

Analyze the Problem

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board gave a survey about problems in the workplace (Erdreich et al, 18). While most employees believe that their agencies are upholding the values embodied in the merit principles, substantial numbers see their agencies as failing in this mission. Some of the most serious problems were in the areas of dealing with performance problems, ensuring that promotions are merit-based and made only after fair and open competition, and keeping personal favoritism out of personnel management. A large minority said that there is a major problem in their agencies in the area of favoritism. Well over a third (8%) felt that their agencies do a poor job protecting employees against personal favoritism. These findings paint a disturbing picture about employees’ perceptions concerning the health of the merit system.

Almost one-third (0%) of the respondents believed that their agencies fail to uphold the merit principles when promoting people, basing promotions on something other than candidates’ relative ability, knowledge, and skills. The same proportion (%) saw the same degree of failure with their agencies’ efforts to ensure fair and open competition before they give a promotion. Nearly half of the people who responded to the survey said that their agencies have a major problem correcting poor performance, and firing poor performers. Since so many people that responded to the survey believe violations of the merit system exist, the perceptions result in cynicism, discouragement, and ultimately; a loss in productivity. Twenty-five percent of the respondents said that there were unfairly denied a job or promotion because of the “buddy system” without regard to merit.

The perception by percent of the respondents felt there was a problem when it came to fair and equitable treatment without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition. That report suggested that some employees are subject to disadvantages unrelated to merit�based factors, especially in those personnel management decisions in which subjective judgment plays a major role.

Sexual harassment is another form of favoritism. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to advances is a condition of a persons continuing status, or when submission to or rejection of the conduct is used as the basis for a decision affecting the person (UOD, 001). Sexual harassment also exists when such conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering with a persons work or academic performance, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.

How does your company deal with whistleblowers? When you come across blatant injustice, but nobody listens to what you have to say, there is sometimes only one thing to do (Gearing, 000). Nowadays, though, more and more ordinary citizens are stepping forward, putting their reputations, their jobs, and even their families lives on the line to make a noise about situations they find unacceptable. Not all whistleblowers are untainted, of course. Some may be exacting revenge, or stirring up trouble for troubles sake. On the other hand, many have justice on their side. Either way, whistleblowers take a chance because they are often the victims of retaliation.

Determine if perhaps you are actually part of the problem. This may be difficult for some of us to admit. Maybe you are contributing to the breakdown in the relationship. Be honest with yourself. Ask your co-workers how they see it. Do not just ask your friends who might be too ready to agree with you, but ask others whom you trust to give you an honest opinion.

Finally, decide if the problem is fixable, and/or if it has caused permanent damage between you and your manager or supervisor. Sometimes it takes the form of a failure to receive an expected or promised promotion or raise. It can take on many forms, but the central message and perception is that the boss just does not like you. This might cause you to feel trapped, not being able to move up, or even having someone to talk with about it. Stress will grow and fester until you get these feelings out and deal with them.

Determine possible Courses of Action

Appropriate and inappropriate behavior should be clear, and effective accountability structures installed. Differences of opinion are a fact, so a meeting is necessary in which the affected parties can work out their grievances. Each optional course of action will have consequences that affect each of the stakeholders. The goal is to find the solution that is fair and just, a resolution that will treat like situated employees in like fashion (fairness), and a resolution that does not trammel the rights and expectations of each of the other stakeholders (justice) (Dubinsky, 00)

Wherever choices exist there is potential for disagreement (Billikopf. 1). Such differences, when handled properly, can result in richer, more effective, creative solutions. However, it is difficult to turn differences into opportunities, consistently. We need to deal with disagreement properly; otherwise, the outcome can be contention. Contention creates a sense of psychological distance between people, such as feelings of dislike, alienation, and disregard.

When faced with challenges, we tend to review possible alternatives and come up with the best solution given the data at hand. We discard unwanted options. While some decisions may take careful consideration, analysis, and even agony, we solve others almost instinctively. Our best solution becomes our position or stance in the matter. Our needs, concerns and fears all play a part in coming up with such a position. Misunderstanding and dissent grow their ugly heads when our solution is not the same as theirs.

Several foes often combine to create contention

o Our first enemy is our natural need to want to explain our side first. After all, we reason, if they understood our perspective, they would come to the same conclusions we did.

o Our second enemy is our ineffectiveness as listeners. Listening is much more than being quiet so we can have our turn.

o Our third enemy is fear. Fear that we will not get our way. Fear of losing something we cherish. Fear that we will look foolish.

o Our fourth enemy is the assumption that one of us has to lose if the other is going to win and that we have to compete to solve our differences.

The good news is that there are simple and effective tools to spin positive solutions out of disagreements. Nevertheless, do not let the simplicity of the concepts obscure the challenge of carrying them out consistently.

If we encourage others to explain their side first, then they will be more apt to listen to ours. Next, people in disagreement often focus on their positions, when instead they should be focusing on their needs. By focusing on positions, we tend to underscore our disagreements. When we concentrate on needs, we find we have more in common than what we had assumed. This will satisfy the sum of both our needs and their needs. When the light goes on, we realize that it is not a zero sum game, where one person has to lose for the other to win. Nor is it necessary to solve disagreements with a lame compromise. Instead, often both parties can be winners.

Not all conflicts can be resolved without the benefit of a third party mediator. Mediation encourages constructive communication in a non-adversarial atmosphere (Gibson, 1). The Mediator acts as a facilitator helping the parties generate win/win alternatives in a cooperative setting. If the problem has legal implications, as in a sexual harassment situation, lawyers would have to sort it all out.


If more than one solution can solve the problem, decide which is the most ethical. All organizations need rules so that everyone knows what to expect. A clearly written policy would prohibit favoritism, harassment, and a hostile work environment. Consistent enforcement of these policies should be fully supported from the top, on down.

• Agree on a resolution to the problem (Hodowanes, 00).

• Write it down.

• Set a time for implementation.

• Have the employee sign it.


Fairness simply means that all employees are treated the same, under the same circumstances. There should be no favoritism. No one likes to be second best. This does not mean that superior performance should go unrewarded. To employees, fairness also means comparable (fair) wages and benefits. Managers need to be sensitive to employee feelings. Acknowledgment and concern about employee feelings about work issues are an important part of establishing a relationship. In employee relations, perceptions are more important than reality. Employees will act on what they perceive or believe. It is important that employees be well informed and told the truth, even when it may be uncomfortable for management or employees. Employees need to know what to expect from managers. No one likes surprises unless they are good surprises. Knowing the expectations of managers will greatly reduce employee stress. There is no substitute for good employee/employer relations!



Billikopf, G. 1. Handling Differences Productively. The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf

Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. Received and reviewed December 5, 00. Available on line at http//www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article15.htm

Dubinsky, J. 00. Ethics Case Studies. Case # Molly’s Story. Received and reviewed December 6, 00. Available on line at http//www.imanet.org/content/About_IMA/EthicsCenter/CaseStudies/casenotes.html

Erdreich, B. et al. 18. Adherence to the Merit Principles in the Workplace Federal Employees Views. U. S. Merit Systems Protection Board. Received and reviewed December 6, 00. Available on line at http//16...100/search?q=cachehiMkMBiFH5cCwww.mspb.gov/studies/adhere.pdf+favoritism+workplace+relevant+factors&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

Frost M. 18. Favoritism in the Workplace. Received and reviewed December 5, 00.

Available on line at http//www.truthpublications.org/articles/favor.htm

Gearing, J. 000. The Whistleblowers. Received and reviewed December 6, 00. Available on line at http//www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/magazine/000/01/is.whistleblowers.html

Gibson, C. 1. Employee Relations 101. Received and reviewed December 5, 00. Available on line at http//16...100/search?q=cachegJ1FDbyLJUCwww.kayang.com.cn/doc_lib/re.doc+employer+employee+conflict+solution+favoritism&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

Hodowanes, J. 00. Job Articles - It is Performance Review Time Again - A Manager’s Perspective. OCjobSite. Received and reviewed December 6, 00. Available on line at http//www.ocjobsite.com/job-articles/performance-reviews.asp

Online Ethics Center for Science and Engineering. 00. Article Number 5 Playing Favorites. Received and reviewed December 5, 00. Available on line at http//onlineethics.org/corp/fav.html

Rossheim, J. 001. Monster Love Conquers All Workplaces. Received and reviewed on December , 00. Available on line http//content.aolcom.aol.monster.com/wlb/articles/attheoffice/conquers/

Smith, G. 00. How to Manage Conflict. Received and reviewed December 6, 00. Available on line at http//www.chartcourse.com/articleconflict.html

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University of Denver. 001. DU Policies. Received and reviewed December 6, 00. Available on line at http//www.du.edu/hr/new_ee/policies.html

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