Favoritism in the workplace: The hidden cause of under-performance

Chances are, you recognize many of the symptoms of under-performance in an individual or team. But how confident are you when it comes to identifying the causes?

Written by Bruna Martinuzzi
Published 04 January 2019
Favoritism in the workplace: The hidden cause of under-performance

Let's start by listing some tell-tale signs:

  • Frequent missed deadlines.
  • A disproportionate number of errors due to carelessness or inattention.
  • Far-fetched excuses for poor work, or blaming others for performance issues.
  • Frequent lateness or calling in sick and other absences from work without notice.
  • Acting like a victim, claiming "everyone is out to get me."
  • Lack of desire to pitch in and help team members when needed.
  • Not taking constructive feedback seriously.

Common causes of 'poor performance' are lack of skill or knowledge, ineffective training or support, and low morale or motivation. But there are other, less obvious, factors to consider. Here, I explore an insidious "hidden" trigger: favoritism, and its corrosive companion, nepotism.

Favoritism in the workplace

I'd like to share my experience of coaching in organizations where favoritism had led to poor performance. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines favoritism as "unfair support shown to one person or group, especially by someone in authority." This does not necessarily involve a family member or friend (although I discuss that, below). It could just be an employee that the manager or supervisor has taken under his or her wing, or someone who is given preferential treatment.

One of my clients described how her performance, and that of her team members, started to deteriorate after the company appointed a new manager who played favorites. "We have employees who are 'in the clique' and those who are out of it," my client said. Those in the clique were newer employees, hand-picked by the new boss, several of whom he had worked with before at other companies.

Examples of favoritism

The "old guard" watched in dismay as the new hires received all sorts of perks and plum opportunities. For example, "the favorites" were assigned to the most highly regarded projects or prestigious accounts, even though their performance didn't warrant it. These favored co-workers were given the opportunity to represent the company at trade shows and other exciting company events out of town, with all the related travel perks. They received fringe benefits such as free tickets to concerts and golf outings. They enjoyed unmarked vacation days and half-days off here and there.

My client's situation is not unique. A 2011 study commissioned by Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business found that a whopping 92 percent of senior business executives had witnessed favoritism in employee promotions. Sometimes, the manifestations of favoritism are less tangible. Even so, they rarely go unnoticed. For example, managers may have warmer conversations with their favorites in the halls and lunch rooms, or take a more genuine interest in their personal lives. They may support favored employees' ideas and suggestions over those that come from others in the team.

Unfair advantage

Another of my clients expressed her concern that her manager had befriended one of her direct reports and went to exercise classes with her, often followed by dinner. This access to her boss's boss gave that employee an unfair advantage over other team members. The problem with bosses who play favorites is that they unwittingly hurt employee morale and ultimately drive down engagement and performance.

My client and several of her colleagues went from being an engaged and collaborative unit to slowly losing their "esprit de corps" and withholding their discretionary effort. Favoritism can be one of the most insidious and hidden causes for lack of performance.

The negative influence of nepotism

One of the most difficult challenges you might encounter as a manager, or when you're in charge of hiring, is dealing with the people who slip in "through the back door." These are the friends and family members of influential people in the organization. I recall one of my consulting assignments, helping a company to hire staff. One of the candidates sitting across from me had a powerful connection in the company. You could sense that he saw the interview as a mere formality and that he was as good as hired. Once he was on board and firmly entrenched, people reported that he was difficult to work with, going around with a sense of entitlement and power, and not working as hard as others.

Despite his poor performance, he received regular bonuses. The same problems cropped up with the hiring of an intern, who was the son of a manager in the company. A couple of the low performers in the company quickly befriended the new recruit. This strategic friendship proved useful for those employees. They passed on to the intern negative comments about their supervisor, who was struggling to get them to pull their weight. Word traveled from the intern to the executive's spouse and, from there, to the executive's ear. The hapless supervisor didn't stand a chance. What's more, the low performers influenced the intern so that he, too, was less productive than expected.

6 ways to handle favoritism at work

Here is my six-step guide for handling the twin problems of favoritism and nepotism in the workplace.

1. Don't sweep the problem under the rug

The worst thing you can do is to let the fallout from nepotism or favoritism continue without addressing it. Hoping that it will go away by itself is a surefire way to let it affect the morale of the entire team.

2. Do some due diligence

Gather the facts and build your case, based on substantial evidence and examples gathered over time. Discreetly speak to a few others involved to determine whether they feel the same way.

3. Decide who to talk to

Present the facts to the offending supervisor or manager directly. The person may be unaware of the extent of his or her favoritism, and how it looks to others. An employee once complained to me that the manager's assistant with whom he had to collaborate on projects acted as the "power behind the throne." She caused the employee much anxiety because of the perceived imbalance of power in this small group dynamic. True, the assistant had power because of her position. When I spoke to her manager on behalf of the complaining employee, the manager was surprised to hear that this was happening. She called the assistant in and coached her to put a stop to it. She asked her to have lunch with the analyst once a week and to treat him as an equal. If it's not possible to speak to a supervisor or manager directly, as a last resort, you can decide to speak to the person's boss.

4. Establish guidelines for the hiring of friends and relatives

It is possible to hire family and friends that we know and trust, but it's important to do this within appropriate boundaries. This includes, for example, having all employees undergo the same rigorous interview process; inviting team members to be a part of the screening and interviewing; having clear job descriptions; defining expectations, roles and responsibilities; and ensuring equitable pay.

5. Provide training on professionalism in the workplace

Help managers to enhance their leadership presence by providing training on professional conduct. Train them to "model the way," and to see that, as leaders, they live in a glass house. Every action they take is visible and magnified by virtue of their position.

6. Raise awareness about the negative consequences of nepotism and favoritism

Coach and mentor those in supervisory positions to understand the consequences of favoritism on their organization and their teams. Help them to see how it negatively impacts employee engagement and performance, hurts team spirit, and affects talent retention- not to mention the risk of claims of discrimination. As an L&D professional, you may be in a unique position to educate everyone on the importance of having a workplace culture where fairness and equity are valued regardless of personal connections or whether a supervisor has taken a liking to someone. It's not only good for improving performance, but it's also the right thing to do.

About the author

Bruna Martinuzzi

Bruna Martinuzzi

Freelance Writer
Bruna is a coach, trainer and author, and has been contributing articles and blogs since 2014. Her background incorporates 30 years of experience in management and executive leadership positions. She has helped thousands of individuals improve their presentation skills and become more effective communicators.

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