Globe & Mail, May 11, 2012
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
When one of my clients arrived at work one day, she noticed some of her colleagues were particularly well-dressed. At noon, she watched them all leave. She later learned they were invited to a fancy luncheon hosted by her manager. It was more evidence that she wasn't in the inner circle: All the invited were his pets.
Bosses playing favourites is one of employees' top complaints. Chosen ones can range from someone being mentored by the manager to a confidant to a shopping buddy to someone with whom the boss is having an affair.
When people see co-workers scoring plum assignments, getting insider information, or being allowed to do things for which others would be reprimanded, they become dispirited. No one wants to be a second-class citizen.
Favouritism is prevalent, and it can be powerful. A recent survey of 300 executives at large U.S. corporations by Georgetown University researchers found that 92 per cent have seen it influence promotions.
Office pets usually fill an emotional need in the boss, the most obvious being sycophantic ego flattering. They can also meet more nuanced needs - such as reminding the manager of his or her younger self or standing in for a child who no longer wants parental advice. Or they might exhibit a neediness that makes the boss wants to take care of them. Bosses can also feel pumped when they make the pets their project, moulding them to behave and dress in a particular way.
Today's managers receive less training on how to be a good boss. The frantic atmosphere of business contributes to favouritism by breeding a sense of immediacy in which managers skip the niceties of being concerned about others' feelings. Added to this is a high performance bar, which leads managers to give important assignments to their favourites if they think, perhaps unfairly, that their pets can best deliver.
Some bosses are more prone to playing favourites. Introverts, for example, are more selective about who they like, while extroverts tend to like everyone more or less equally. Introverts are thus more likely to favour some employees over others.
Similarly, women are more likely than men to have chosen ones or to play favourites, because women are more inclined to make an emotional connection with others.
Of course, no one feels good about themselves when they are excluded from an inner circle, so those who don't make it need to find a reason to explain their reduced status. Rather than thinking the unthinkable - that the preferred one is more talented or more charismatic - they lash out and diminish the pet by attributing his or her success to being political, self-promoting, or a "yes" person.
Human resources experts, Pollyanna-like, say that partiality is never acceptable. But is favouritism always a bad thing? Can you ever really get rid of it?
Some favouritism is egregious - the boss is having an affair with the pet, or the favourite is a toady who supports the boss no matter what.
But sometimes selecting a favourite isn't capricious or driven by the boss's ego needs - it is based on talent. The favourite is simply more skilled, or has more potential. Or the manager is more comfortable with that employee because of a compatible work style.
It is natural for people to be more attracted to, and thus favour, one person over another, especially if that person is a better performer, more reliable, makes the boss look good, or is simply more likeable. You can't eradicate favouritism completely because you can't legislate attraction.
As painful as it may be to accept that you are not one of the chosen, not everyone is capable of making equal contributions; therefore not everyone can be treated equally.
The chosen ones do benefit from their boss's attention, but there are downsides as well. They may be ridiculed by co-workers, or be the targets of passive-aggressive comments. Passed-over colleagues might complain, "If I were prepared be a suck-up, I could be promoted, too."
Interestingly, ego-fuelled managers who play favourites are often oblivious to what they are doing and how it affects others. I once told a client that everyone in her department knew who her "special person" was, and described some of my client's inappropriate behaviours such as shutting her office door and giggling loudly with her favourite. She was shocked and professed complete ignorance - both that people knew that she favoured someone, and that she did it so explicitly.
If you believe you are being discriminated against in favour of someone less talented, speak to your manager about how demoralizing it is to be a second-class citizen. However, whatever you do, don't slag the pet. Or confide in your boss's boss, or someone in human resources, presenting hard examples of unfair treatment. But be cautious: I have heard numerous accounts in which the confidence is broken, people side with the manager, and everyone blames the victim.
You should also figure out what the favourites do better than, or differently than, you do. Can they be counted on in ways that you can't? Are they more agreeable and flexible? Do they show more initiative?
Or you can accept the fact that sometimes the world is not fair, do the best you can, and maybe even look for a new boss, perhaps one who will make you his or her pet.