Workplace Doctor: When the boss plays the game of favourites, everyone loses

Widespread favouritism can have a significant effect, both on the victim, the VIP and ultimately the business itself.

Choosing just one of your employees to go on all the business trips and networking opportunities is harmful for both the employees and the company. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
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A colleague appears to receive preferential treatment over me. We are on the same level but she gets the overseas trips; she attends the big meetings and she is the one out there representing the brand. I, on the other hand, am often stuck in the office doing the hard graft that backs up her networking. How do I address this? SK, Abu Dhabi

Playing second fiddle to someone can be a tough pill to swallow. Widespread favouritism can have a significant effect, both on the victim, the VIP and ultimately the business itself. A recent study by an American business school found that 92 per cent of business executives have seen favouritism at play in employee promotions, 25 per cent of these executives even admitted practising favouritism themselves.

It is amazing to see how similar patterns of behaviour emerge throughout different stages of life. Preferential treatment from a manager is the same “teacher’s pet mentality” that we may have experienced at school, with one particular student getting all the praise and opportunities. In your case you are missing out on the overseas trips and the big meetings. Instead you are working in the background, only for someone else to take all the glory.

Remember that favouritism is part of our human nature. We start out with a favourite toy and keep going from there. In the workplace we constantly make comparisons, so when we see someone else receiving preferential treatment we automatically feel threatened and start asking questions.

The first thing you must do is find out whether you are really the victim. If your colleague does perform more effectively than you do, or is better suited to the tasks that she is being given, then it may be time to ramp up your performance. A good employee also looks inside, examines their weaknesses and tries to figure out how to improve and positively influence perceptions of their work.

The next step is to share your accomplishments and document your performance. By hiding yourself you make others stand out. In a previous role I had a co-worker who was a master at including the boss in critical emails at the right time. This move really influenced how they were perceived, for the better.

It also seems that your colleague’s preferential treatment involves more social activities such as business meetings, trips and events to represent the brand, while you are stuck in the office doing the graft. Therefore it may be that your boss has a particular perception of each of your strengths, offering her behaviours suited to extroverts and maybe using you for more introverted tasks. Consider whether you are favoured for focused and reflective tasks, such as delivering projects, preparing reports or gathering data. These may not be perceived to be as prestigious, but possibly to your boss they could be equally as important and may be sel­ected based on your personality and perceived strengths.

Explore the situation with your boss in an indirect and considered manner. Subtly find out whether you simply need to help them discover that you have other strengths. Often fav­ouritism is unconscious and based on the mental short cuts people use to make decisions easier. Your boss may have just assumed you weren’t interested in that kind of stuff, or preferred to be in the office.

Alongside exploring opportunities with your boss, continue to work hard and try your best to make yourself indispensable in the areas in which you excel, as well as trying to step out of safety and put your hand up for different types of opportunities. If you have a debt from a difficult client or a problem with a supplier, why don’t you be the one to solve it? Reputations are often made from getting your hands dirty and you seem to be used to putting in the graft. Play to that strength and from that the invitations will come.

Doctor’s prescription:

We all have favourites, from shoes to meals and even to colleagues and friends. When you are not the VIP, it is easy to feel like the victim. Instead, understand if this treatment is justified, look inward, ramp up the work ethic and most importantly step up for important projects, even if they don’t involve a red carpet or private dinner just yet.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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