Workplace doctor: Favourtism perception a delicate issue to be handled with care

Some staff members at an IT firm feel certain colleagues get better treatment

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 15:  People work at computers in TechHub, an office space for technology start-up entrepreneurs, near the Old Street roundabout in Shoreditch which has been dubbed 'Silicon Roundabout' due to the number of technology companies operating from the area on March 15, 2011 in London, England. Entrepreneurs using TechHub are predominantly product-oriented tech companies who rent desk space and use the fast wifi. The relatively low rental rates and proximity to media and internet companies has made the area close to the roundabout a prime location for IT firms and web entrepreneurs.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
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QI am the boss of a small firm involved in IT. I have a committed group of staff but recently I have heard rumours that some of them feel I am giving others preferential treatment at work. I do have a couple of people who have been with me a long time, but I do not believe I am showing any of them favouritism or being unfair to any of the others. How do I address this in a positive manner? CB, Sharjah


AAlthough favouritism can be a prevalent part of organisational life, it is mostly accompanied by negative consequences.  

A survey conducted by Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business found that 92 per cent of senior business executives have seen favouritism at play, so the rumours of it in your firm are not totally out of the ordinary. However, undertaking to resolve this in a positive way, as you intend, is the right step forward. Your question infers that you are feeling fairly confident that you are not consciously showing favouritism and, before looking at why others may perceive it as such, it is worth taking a step back and reviewing your own interactions with your employees. 

Favouritism is often observed where the manager and employee share a history or common experience, have worked together for a long period, or they have other mutual interests. On a work level, we bond with certain people more than others and unsurprisingly, we enjoy working with people with whom we have a natural connection. If you are honest with yourself, could there be some element of truth to the rumour? Can you think of any specific incidences that may have led to others feeling this way? What are the approaches or criteria that you use when assigning projects? Is there anything in the way in which you engage with specific employees that could lead others to feel that you favour them – perhaps by being more inclusive on a personal level or informally connecting with them? It is inevitable that we interact on different levels with different people, but as a leader it is important to be aware of this and to be mindful of the possible implications of how others interpret it.


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It is conceivable that the accusations could come from a place of insecurity or even envy, triggering a degree of political posturing. Others may not be aware of the effort, hard work or responsibilities that some employees have undertaken to be assigned certain tasks or projects. As the other employees are not necessarily aware of the full picture, they may feel overlooked or under-appreciated, only seeing that their colleagues receive credit or recognition. 

Another consideration is that of generational differences. From your question, it could be inferred that the people considered to receive preferential treatment are those that have been with you longer and therefore may be at a later stage in their career. If you do have younger millennials in your team, they may have high expectations of promotion and rapid progression. If they perceive that they are not being afforded the opportunity of being assigned interesting projects or promotion, they may interpret this as special treatment of others.

Try to shift the perception across the firm, as perceived favouritism can evolve into a toxic environment – potentially breaking down trust, lowering morale and leading to resentment from other employees. When real favouritism is present, there is a danger of overlooking potential from other employees and constraining the prospective growth of the firm.  Some employees may opt to leave, leading to a loss of essential talent and further stifling growth.


Doctor's prescription:

From the way you refer to favouritism, it does not seem to be something you subscribe to. Reassure your staff that there is no room for favouritism or unfair treatment. Share positive comments about performance, encourage input from everyone and offer opportunities to all. Be transparent about your rationale when making decisions as others may not be aware of all the information or issues. Set up systems that allow you to benchmark and measure outcomes, which will enable you to objectify performance rather than potentially being viewed as personalising it. If you are still concerned that perceived favouritism is an issue, undertake an engagement survey to gain clarity of your current climate and commitment. Finally, be inclusive and let everyone have open and equal access to you.


Yolande Basson is an executive coach and consultant
at Ashridge Executive Education – Middle East