Why Managers Play Favorites and How To Stop It

Updated May 17, 20223 min
Why Managers Play Favorites and How To Stop It

Why Managers Play Favorites and How To Stop It

Caroline BantonUpdated May 17, 20223 min
Why Managers Play Favorites and How To Stop It

There are always a few individuals that people naturally warm to and get along with in any workplace. Perhaps they exude charisma and are fun to be around. As a manager, you might be drawn to the charismatic type, or you might feel obligated to take a less visible staff member under your wing and guide and mentor them.

Whatever your inclinations, a manager should not play favorites. It’s crucial that you treat co-workers fairly so that every team member feels equally valued.

This article explains why favoritism at work fosters a toxic company culture. It explains why it is human nature to hold biases and gives practical steps managers can take to avoid exhibiting favoritism.

The Dangers of Favoritism

A survey conducted back in 2011 by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and quoted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) found shocking results. Close to 90 percent of senior business executives thought favoritism played a role in employee promotions, and one quarter admitted to practicing favoritism themselves. Considering that human nature stays much the same, it’s safe to assume that favoritism remains a huge problem.

If a manager exhibits bias toward some staff and favoritism toward others, resentment sets in and morale plummets. Staff may sense that they are less likely to be given growth opportunities and will be more likely to disengage and seek another position. A revolving door is a costly proposition for companies, and one they hope to avoid. 

Here are some tips for managers to avoid showing favoritism.

Related: "Striking the Balance Between Manager and Friend"

How to Divide Your Time

Your job as a manager and leader is to guide and mentor your staff. Each individual will have different needs in that regard. Some of your reports will be self-starters and require minimal guidance, while others will need a significant amount of your attention.

To avoid seeming like you are playing favorites, allocate time to everyone, and not just for performance reviews. For example, a manager should schedule regular one-on-one meetings with staff to check-in and find out how they are getting on and what their needs are. It’s also a time to make sure they are on track and prioritizing the right tasks.

Ideally, these one-on-ones should last the same amount of time for each person and be scheduled weekly or monthly. 

However, there will come a time when a staff member requires significantly more of your time. Perhaps they have a problem at home that is affecting them at work. It's ok to temporarily give more time to an individual under exceptional circumstances—although the operative word here is “temporary.”

Delegate If Possible

If a staff member has particular needs that demand more of your time, consider whether you can delegate your role. If they need guidance or training, is there another staff member other than you who can train or mentor them? If they have a personal issue, can human resources help them? Remember that you should spend your time on overall management, not on becoming deeply involved in a single case.

Give Your Staff the Power to Choose

One way to avoid workplace favoritism is to allow your staff to make more decisions. For example, some employees are natural leaders, and they are the obvious choice to lead teams. However, if you, as the manager, constantly pick the same person as the team leader, you will be accused of favoritism.

Instead, put the power into the hands of the employees. Let them choose who should lead a team and who should assume other roles. This avoids you having to make a decision that might not be the best anyway. Giving teams this type of autonomy will keep them engaged and accountable.

Pair Up Staff for Mentoring

If you find that a team member is constantly landing a leadership role or getting the choice assignments, have them pair up with another person. That way, the other person can learn new skill sets from the more experienced staff member and perhaps land a leadership role the next time.

This type of mentoring can occur at any level in any role and allow all employees the opportunity to learn new skills from others and gain confidence.

For more on mentoring, read "How to Mentor Gen Z

Be Transparent

Be open with your direct reports and explain the reason for your decisions. For example, hybrid work environments can be tricky when it comes to equal treatment and fair expectations. Let’s say one staff member is permitted to work remotely because the nature of their work makes it possible, but another staff member must work from the office.

From the outset, the job description should clearly state the parameters of the job regarding remote work, but often hybrid work structures are fluid, and situations can change. Clearly communicating to staff the reason behind a decision can go a long way to diffusing any ill will. Also, consider whether staff who are not permitted to work remotely can be compensated in other ways. Perhaps they can take an extra day off here or there for a better work-life balance.

Similarly, where promotions are concerned, be transparent, and use strict guidelines that are written down and accessible to staff.  

When recognizing staff for their hard work, consider having their peers choose who should be recognized for good work. The staff themselves have a better perspective on who deserves to be rewarded for their efforts.

Related: "How to Be a Good Manager—9 Ways to Lead Better"

Level the Playing Field for Recognition

It’s important to recognize staff for high performance. However, all too often, those involved in more visible projects are naturally nominated more often for perks and rewards. Be creative with rewards so that everyone is appreciated in the workplace for their contributions.

Again, ask staff for their ideas and inputs. It’s not just stellar performance that you should reward. Perhaps a particular employee took time out to help another, and their kindness is worthy of recognition too. Your staff will see things that you don’t, and they may suggest recognizing someone for a generous act that you had no idea ever occurred.

Also, ask clients for feedback so that employees with direct customer contact are recognized for their valuable service from an outsider’s perspective.

Level the playing field.

Consider Leadership Training

It’s human nature to hold biases. As human beings, we all hold values and beliefs that affect our thinking and actions, but these unconscious biases can lead to preferential treatment harmful to individuals and organizations.

A study by The Center for Talent Innovation found that employees who perceive bias against them at work are three times more likely to be disengaged and to leave their jobs within a year.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to detect biases before special treatment affects morale and destroys trust. Leadership training with a career professional can hone your leadership skills and help you understand your innate biases, which is the first step to controlling them.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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