You may have noticed it on a team conference call if your boss never asks your opinion in key decision making. Another person in the organization may always receive preferential treatment, including plum assignments—before these assignments are even revealed to the whole staff.
Beyond eroding your self-confidence and perpetuating your insecurities, favoritism in the workplace can have a serious impact on an employee. It may mean receiving fewer raises, an insubstantial workload, and a lack of advancement.
An employer showing preferential treatment based on factors aside from performance isn't just annoying—it's a form of workplace discrimination. After all, your work environment is disrupted and unpleasant because certain employees are being excluded and receiving unfair treatment, while others have a cushier work environment.
So, how do you encourage management to address the problem of "playing favorites" at work and stop perpetuating discrimination and favoritism?
Steps to create a more welcoming work environment as an employee
1. Acknowledge that it is real.
Document instances and events at work when the behavior occurs, even if it is just in a journal for yourself. You want to be careful about spreading rumors or sounding insecure about your job, so you may want to ask a trusted friend outside the workplace if the behavior seems like favoritism, using specific examples of times employees received preferential treatment.
“Part of having friendships in our personal lives is helping people, doing favors, and listening when they need our support. However, friendships formed at the workplace can spill over into workplace responsibilities. This is when favoritism is most pronounced and most frustrating to other people,” writes Robby Slaughter of AccelaWork LLC, in Inside Indiana Business.
2. Keep tabs on your own behavior.
While you may enjoy friendships with a few of your coworkers more than others, don't make anyone else feel left out. Sit near different colleagues at meetings and make sure you model thoughtfulness to everyone in the workplace in the same ways.
“One of the things that’s fascinating is that while friendship can have a lot of individual benefits, too much friendship can lead to destruction in the workplace. Sometimes you get caught up in some of the dynamics and it can be really distracting,” writes Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Knowledge at Wharton.
3. Be transparent about your own work and productivity.
Share your successes. Perhaps your supervisor is not aware of all you have been doing and your contributions to the organization.
As Gloria Feldt, president and co-founder of Take The Lead, writes, "Use what you’ve got." This can be using the information about your performance and your deliverables. Feldt adds, "What you need is almost always there. See it and use it with courage. Because power unused is power useless." And you have the power to shift the culture to one of democracy.
Taking steps to reduce unfair treatment at work as a manager
On the other side of the equation, if you are a leader in an organization and managing others, you can also check your own patterns of behavior to develop the most effective leadership. Make sure that as a boss you do not display an “inner circle” mentality to your royal court that can be construed as showing favoritism, discrimination or harassment.
1. Create a culture of open communication.
Set aside time when everyone on the team can share ideas and insights.
”When you allow people to voice their thoughts and suggestions in this way, you showcase your respect for them, which only improves their self-esteem and performance in the workplace,” writes Louis Carter, CEO/founder of Best Practice Institute.
2. Be sure you have self-awareness.
You need to be cognizant of your attitude, so your colleagues and co-workers don't think you're playing Queen Bee, with your favorite worker bees already assigned their positions in the hive.
“You need to think about being more deliberately inclusive of other people. Things like that are important to keep in mind because a lot of times you’re in this bubble of the friendship and you’re not aware of the impact it’s having on other organizational outcomes,” writes Rothbard.
3. Earn the trust of your team.
“It is the leader’s role to build that trust by being authentic, open and transparent. Members of the organization have to be treated fairly and equitably leaving no room for favoritism or nepotism. Highly skilled and valuable staff will not stand for this and will look for work in organizations where they will be accorded respect and recognition for the skills and efforts they bring,” writes Harvey Deutschendorf in Forbes.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that favoritism hurts the bottom line.
Whether you are on the wrong side of your boss’s special selection process, or you are a leader who's guilty of playing favorites on the job, you need to do everything you can to equalize the workplace culture. Showing favoritism contributes to a toxic workplace culture and hostile work environment, and every employee must do her part to improve the environment for everyone.
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Michele Weldon is an author, journalist and editorial director of Take The Lead. Her most recent book is, Escape Points: A Memoir.