The ripple effects of favouritism in the workplace


Favouritism is an issue as old as the workplace itself and it has some lesser-known negative impacts that aren’t always considered.

When Clare Long was called in to investigate alleged favouritism in the workplace, she was left deeply shaken by its effects.

“I run a business where we look after the HR functions for small-to-medium sized businesses. A  client in the care-home sector called us in because they had a director who has been exhibiting [worrying] behaviour for years that had gotten worse,” she says. 

“As we investigated, it became clear the problem was widespread. If you were from an Anglo-Australian background, you were treated with respect. If you weren’t, then you were treated with contempt.”

Many of the employees were on low incomes and from non-English speaking backgrounds, so they weren’t in a position to leave the company. Over time, this culture of favouritism turned into one set of rules for some employees and a different set for others.

“The favouritism showed itself in the way policies were applied. For example, you weren’t meant to have your mobile phone on you during the day. If you were Anglo-Australian, you could [get away with it], but if you were from another racial background, you’d be disciplined for it,” says Long.

Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University, says favouritism can occur a number of ways, such as through performance evaluation or resource allocation.

“Favouritism is non-merit-based and can be considered illegal if it discriminates against a person or group, or poses a legal risk for the organisation.”

“Favouritism at work can destroy trust in organisations and leaders.” – Dr Ruchi Sinha, University of South Australia

While not all favouritism results in the harmful discrimination Long described, there’s a significant body of research to show that ‘in-group’ favouritism can be a more potent engine for discrimination than overt hostility towards ‘out-groups’.

Research by Employsure found that favouritism is a widely perceived issue in Australian workplaces. Its 2018/19 report found that almost half of working Australians say favouritism is present in their workplace.  

“Favouritism is not discrimination unless it is influenced by protected characteristics (e.g. I only like to work with men; I do not like to work with pregnant women). This is distinct from saying: ‘I like to work with fun people, smart people, or people with the same interests’,” the report notes. 

“Favouritism is non-merit-based and can be considered illegal if it discriminates against a person or group, or poses a legal risk for the organisation.”

“If you were from an Anglo-Australian background, you were treated with respect. If you weren’t, then you were treated with contempt.” – Clare Long, business owner

While not all favouritism results in the harmful discrimination Long described, there’s a significant body of research to show that ‘in-group’ favouritism can be a more potent engine for discrimination than overt hostility towards ‘out-groups’.

While favouritism doesn’t automatically equal discriminatory behaviour, it’s not a far stretch to connect the two.

Researchers at the University of Washington and University of California, Santa Cruz, in the United States found that “much discrimination occurs without hostile intent”. It often occurs as a consequence of social structures or mental processes which “all tend to result in favouring already advantaged groups”.


Unconscious bias training can help eliminate favouritism. Sign up today for AHRI’s unconscious bias short course.


Establishing boundaries

“While favouritism benefits the in-group, out-group members tend not to benefit and therefore the quality of interpersonal relationships between managers and employees with the out-group members also deteriorates,” says Chan.

As with Long’s case, over time favouritism can turn into patronage, says Chan. Eventually executives start promoting the employees they favour or trust into positions of power, which encourages those working under them to engage in similar behaviour. 

“This perpetuates favouritism in the organisation, and over time may lead to conformity and groupthink, leading those who don’t ‘fit in’ to leave the organisation.” 

Think of the people who hold management positions in your organisation. Are they similar to one another? Or think about the people you enjoy working with most. Is it their competency you value, or something else? Learning how to quash affinity bias within your workplace is only possible if you first know how to identify it.

“It can potentially have severe consequences for group performance, such as affecting project progress and completion.” – Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University.

While favouritism can lead to discrimination, there are also less overt forms of it at play. One particularly difficult form to manage is performance-based favouritism. This differs from ‘regular’ favouritism – which might occur between two people who share a similar sense of humour, for example, or come from similar backgrounds. Performance-based favouritism occurs when managers favour an individual or a group based on superior performance and abilities. 

“It might look like a manager agreeing to most of the requests from high-performing employees or providing resources and opportunities to high-performing employees and denying access to others,” says Chan. 

Although you might not think it’s such a big deal to favour the opinions/work of high performers, Chan says it can still work against an organisation.

“It can potentially have severe consequences for group performance, such as affecting project progress and completion. Over time, it could also lead to turnover and workplace deviance among members who have not benefited from the favouritism.”

Destructive behaviours

Dr Ruchi Sinha, a senior lecturer in the school of management at the University of South Australia, says one of the critical effects of favouritism in the workplace is that it can break down trust because it is in direct conflict with values that workplaces espouse, such as equity. 

“Favouritism at work can destroy trust in organisations and leaders, and become a source of distress for employees, leading to low motivation and productivity loss,” she says.

“Fundamentally, favouritism shows a disregard for competence and attributes such as dependability and reliability – all of which are signals of trust – while favouring personal friendships and instrumental reciprocity.”

New research out of the University of Istanbul found that a lack of trust in management can lead to lower employee satisfaction, motivation and performance levels. The researchers also found links between favouritism in the workplace and increased workplace bad behaviour (from the non-favoured employees) – decreased productivity, absenteeism and long breaks, for example – and that those who weren’t favoured had “less psychological energy” to dedicate to their jobs.

So we know that it’s potentially destructive, but how can you detect its presence?

“This perpetuates favouritism in the organisation, and over time may lead to conformity and groupthink, leading those who don’t ‘fit in’ to leave the organisation.” – Clare Long, business owner

Start by looking at the allocation of resources and if there’s a lack of transparency around procedures, says Sinha. For example, when promotion or role selection criteria is vaguely described, and there is no formal documentation of how those who receive opportunities fit the criteria, favouritism may be at play. 

“HR managers could regularly collect data on how budgets are allocated across roles, and how opportunities to work on high-profile projects are distributed among team members or how professional development opportunities are decided when there are scarce resources,” she says.

How to deal with favouritism

Identifying favouritism is one thing, but managing it before it gets out of control is another. 

Sinha believes the best way for managers to discuss the topic is to do it under the label of “fair work practices”.

“HR professionals could openly discuss how leader-follower relationships can become differentiated over time. Leaders can be trained to understand how we unknowingly rely on those with whom we are friends at the cost of not considering those who might have the expertise to do tasks,” she says. 

You might not gel with someone on a social level, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the best person for the job.

“[HR can also] provide regular training on social network analysis to encourage both leaders and followers to map out close ties between members and leaders, and see if their perceptions of close and not-so-close ties overlap with others’. 

“This work-social network mapping exercise can provide an insight into how people perceive closeness in relationships at work and can become a starting point to discuss fair and just allocation of time and resources,” says Sinha.

She also feels there is a role for unconscious bias training. Such training can touch on how over-reliance on like-minded others that we’re drawn to can prevent fresh and novel ideas from emerging.

Chan agrees there’s a role for implicit bias training, but emphasises that it can’t be a one-off thing.

“Unconscious bias training must be accompanied by positive culture and ethical leadership where organisations and managers are committed to treating employees fairly and addressing workplace discrimination and favouritism,” she says. 

Those in management and HR positions don’t want to be seen as being the ‘fun police’ or overstepping into employees’ personal lives. Chan suggests that a good toolkit to manage favouritism includes building a culture of trust that facilitates an open-door policy and two-way conversations, so employees can provide feedback or discuss issues, whether they are overt or less perceptible.

“HR managers can also set up anonymous [feedback] mechanisms for employees to raise their concerns and suggestions. If time and resources allow, also ensure that everyone in the organisation undergoes 360-degree feedback to gather inputs from multiple parties in relation to manager or employee behaviour for subsequent leadership and performance improvement,” says Chan.

“When dealing with a complaint, don’t jump to conclusions, but observe and set up conversations with multiple parties to get a clear picture of what is going on and address the issue more effectively.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 2021 edition of HRM magazine.

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Michelle Deen
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Michelle Deen

I don’t see a problem with Favouritism. If you can’t have a trusted source to share information it makes being an HR Manager more challenging.

CJT
Guest
CJT

The terms ‘favouritism’ and ‘trust’ are poles apart. If a HR Manager cannot develop trust within their team from the outset and maintain open and effective communication with all team members and continually show favouritism to a limited few, then the HR Manager does not posses the skills and integrity to be in the position. Off with their heads I say!

Catherine
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Catherine

Favouritism is also commonly known as “playing politics”. In an organisation where people are rewarded simply because the person who makes the decisions likes them, you create an environment where ambitious people learn very quickly that their success is not dependent on their skills and abilities, but on their capacity to convince their manager that they are worth favouring. For those who refuse to engage in politics, the workplace becomes uninspiring, and motivation tanks.

More on HRM

The ripple effects of favouritism in the workplace


Favouritism is an issue as old as the workplace itself and it has some lesser-known negative impacts that aren’t always considered.

When Clare Long was called in to investigate alleged favouritism in the workplace, she was left deeply shaken by its effects.

“I run a business where we look after the HR functions for small-to-medium sized businesses. A  client in the care-home sector called us in because they had a director who has been exhibiting [worrying] behaviour for years that had gotten worse,” she says. 

“As we investigated, it became clear the problem was widespread. If you were from an Anglo-Australian background, you were treated with respect. If you weren’t, then you were treated with contempt.”

Many of the employees were on low incomes and from non-English speaking backgrounds, so they weren’t in a position to leave the company. Over time, this culture of favouritism turned into one set of rules for some employees and a different set for others.

“The favouritism showed itself in the way policies were applied. For example, you weren’t meant to have your mobile phone on you during the day. If you were Anglo-Australian, you could [get away with it], but if you were from another racial background, you’d be disciplined for it,” says Long.

Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University, says favouritism can occur a number of ways, such as through performance evaluation or resource allocation.

“Favouritism is non-merit-based and can be considered illegal if it discriminates against a person or group, or poses a legal risk for the organisation.”

“Favouritism at work can destroy trust in organisations and leaders.” – Dr Ruchi Sinha, University of South Australia

While not all favouritism results in the harmful discrimination Long described, there’s a significant body of research to show that ‘in-group’ favouritism can be a more potent engine for discrimination than overt hostility towards ‘out-groups’.

Research by Employsure found that favouritism is a widely perceived issue in Australian workplaces. Its 2018/19 report found that almost half of working Australians say favouritism is present in their workplace.  

“Favouritism is not discrimination unless it is influenced by protected characteristics (e.g. I only like to work with men; I do not like to work with pregnant women). This is distinct from saying: ‘I like to work with fun people, smart people, or people with the same interests’,” the report notes. 

“Favouritism is non-merit-based and can be considered illegal if it discriminates against a person or group, or poses a legal risk for the organisation.”

“If you were from an Anglo-Australian background, you were treated with respect. If you weren’t, then you were treated with contempt.” – Clare Long, business owner

While not all favouritism results in the harmful discrimination Long described, there’s a significant body of research to show that ‘in-group’ favouritism can be a more potent engine for discrimination than overt hostility towards ‘out-groups’.

While favouritism doesn’t automatically equal discriminatory behaviour, it’s not a far stretch to connect the two.

Researchers at the University of Washington and University of California, Santa Cruz, in the United States found that “much discrimination occurs without hostile intent”. It often occurs as a consequence of social structures or mental processes which “all tend to result in favouring already advantaged groups”.


Unconscious bias training can help eliminate favouritism. Sign up today for AHRI’s unconscious bias short course.


Establishing boundaries

“While favouritism benefits the in-group, out-group members tend not to benefit and therefore the quality of interpersonal relationships between managers and employees with the out-group members also deteriorates,” says Chan.

As with Long’s case, over time favouritism can turn into patronage, says Chan. Eventually executives start promoting the employees they favour or trust into positions of power, which encourages those working under them to engage in similar behaviour. 

“This perpetuates favouritism in the organisation, and over time may lead to conformity and groupthink, leading those who don’t ‘fit in’ to leave the organisation.” 

Think of the people who hold management positions in your organisation. Are they similar to one another? Or think about the people you enjoy working with most. Is it their competency you value, or something else? Learning how to quash affinity bias within your workplace is only possible if you first know how to identify it.

“It can potentially have severe consequences for group performance, such as affecting project progress and completion.” – Dr Carys Chan, lecturer in organisational psychology at Griffith University.

While favouritism can lead to discrimination, there are also less overt forms of it at play. One particularly difficult form to manage is performance-based favouritism. This differs from ‘regular’ favouritism – which might occur between two people who share a similar sense of humour, for example, or come from similar backgrounds. Performance-based favouritism occurs when managers favour an individual or a group based on superior performance and abilities. 

“It might look like a manager agreeing to most of the requests from high-performing employees or providing resources and opportunities to high-performing employees and denying access to others,” says Chan. 

Although you might not think it’s such a big deal to favour the opinions/work of high performers, Chan says it can still work against an organisation.

“It can potentially have severe consequences for group performance, such as affecting project progress and completion. Over time, it could also lead to turnover and workplace deviance among members who have not benefited from the favouritism.”

Destructive behaviours

Dr Ruchi Sinha, a senior lecturer in the school of management at the University of South Australia, says one of the critical effects of favouritism in the workplace is that it can break down trust because it is in direct conflict with values that workplaces espouse, such as equity. 

“Favouritism at work can destroy trust in organisations and leaders, and become a source of distress for employees, leading to low motivation and productivity loss,” she says.

“Fundamentally, favouritism shows a disregard for competence and attributes such as dependability and reliability – all of which are signals of trust – while favouring personal friendships and instrumental reciprocity.”

New research out of the University of Istanbul found that a lack of trust in management can lead to lower employee satisfaction, motivation and performance levels. The researchers also found links between favouritism in the workplace and increased workplace bad behaviour (from the non-favoured employees) – decreased productivity, absenteeism and long breaks, for example – and that those who weren’t favoured had “less psychological energy” to dedicate to their jobs.

So we know that it’s potentially destructive, but how can you detect its presence?

“This perpetuates favouritism in the organisation, and over time may lead to conformity and groupthink, leading those who don’t ‘fit in’ to leave the organisation.” – Clare Long, business owner

Start by looking at the allocation of resources and if there’s a lack of transparency around procedures, says Sinha. For example, when promotion or role selection criteria is vaguely described, and there is no formal documentation of how those who receive opportunities fit the criteria, favouritism may be at play. 

“HR managers could regularly collect data on how budgets are allocated across roles, and how opportunities to work on high-profile projects are distributed among team members or how professional development opportunities are decided when there are scarce resources,” she says.

How to deal with favouritism

Identifying favouritism is one thing, but managing it before it gets out of control is another. 

Sinha believes the best way for managers to discuss the topic is to do it under the label of “fair work practices”.

“HR professionals could openly discuss how leader-follower relationships can become differentiated over time. Leaders can be trained to understand how we unknowingly rely on those with whom we are friends at the cost of not considering those who might have the expertise to do tasks,” she says. 

You might not gel with someone on a social level, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the best person for the job.

“[HR can also] provide regular training on social network analysis to encourage both leaders and followers to map out close ties between members and leaders, and see if their perceptions of close and not-so-close ties overlap with others’. 

“This work-social network mapping exercise can provide an insight into how people perceive closeness in relationships at work and can become a starting point to discuss fair and just allocation of time and resources,” says Sinha.

She also feels there is a role for unconscious bias training. Such training can touch on how over-reliance on like-minded others that we’re drawn to can prevent fresh and novel ideas from emerging.

Chan agrees there’s a role for implicit bias training, but emphasises that it can’t be a one-off thing.

“Unconscious bias training must be accompanied by positive culture and ethical leadership where organisations and managers are committed to treating employees fairly and addressing workplace discrimination and favouritism,” she says. 

Those in management and HR positions don’t want to be seen as being the ‘fun police’ or overstepping into employees’ personal lives. Chan suggests that a good toolkit to manage favouritism includes building a culture of trust that facilitates an open-door policy and two-way conversations, so employees can provide feedback or discuss issues, whether they are overt or less perceptible.

“HR managers can also set up anonymous [feedback] mechanisms for employees to raise their concerns and suggestions. If time and resources allow, also ensure that everyone in the organisation undergoes 360-degree feedback to gather inputs from multiple parties in relation to manager or employee behaviour for subsequent leadership and performance improvement,” says Chan.

“When dealing with a complaint, don’t jump to conclusions, but observe and set up conversations with multiple parties to get a clear picture of what is going on and address the issue more effectively.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 2021 edition of HRM magazine.

3
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Michelle Deen
Guest
Michelle Deen

I don’t see a problem with Favouritism. If you can’t have a trusted source to share information it makes being an HR Manager more challenging.

CJT
Guest
CJT

The terms ‘favouritism’ and ‘trust’ are poles apart. If a HR Manager cannot develop trust within their team from the outset and maintain open and effective communication with all team members and continually show favouritism to a limited few, then the HR Manager does not posses the skills and integrity to be in the position. Off with their heads I say!

Catherine
Guest
Catherine

Favouritism is also commonly known as “playing politics”. In an organisation where people are rewarded simply because the person who makes the decisions likes them, you create an environment where ambitious people learn very quickly that their success is not dependent on their skills and abilities, but on their capacity to convince their manager that they are worth favouring. For those who refuse to engage in politics, the workplace becomes uninspiring, and motivation tanks.

More on HRM