“Playing favorites,” preferential treatment, nepotism – there are plenty of terms for what most employees consider to be a grossly unfair practice in the workplace: when a manager favors one employee over the rest. This is especially true when colleagues believe the preference isn’t based on working ability or professional merit, but rather, based solely on personality. Managers are people, and people make many decisions based on feelings and emotions. How should senior managers act when they like some employees over others? How problematic is it?
Preferential Treatment in a Team Can Increase Performance
Over the last few decades, plenty of different theories showed that employees who feel as though they’ve been treated unfairly put in much less effort in the workplace, and call in sick more often. There are also studies that reveal contradictory results. Over a period of three years, scientists from Germany, England, Canada and the Netherlands discovered that it might be beneficial to favor one employee over another.
The study involved an experiment where managers turned to one employee more than others, praised them for their skill, and held eye contact longer. The “preferred” employee was much more productive and – surprisingly – strengthened the whole team. Even the other colleagues improved their performance.
The researchers, who work at the Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, explain the results based on something called the “Comparison Process.” Every employee strives to be treated best by his employer. When people have that feeling, they become more productive. And because they work so much more productively, the entire team benefits. This experiment shows that employees who are treated just as well as their peers work less productively.
Despite these findings, scientists don’t want to encourage this kind of treatment, that managers should bully some employees or f avor others. However, the findings show that it may benefit a company to take special care of the employees who bring high potential and high capacity to the employer. At the same time, one must be careful to treat the other employees equally fair and respectfully.
The Key Factor is Fairness
Munich psychologists Bernhard Streicher and Dieter Frey summarized the meaning of “fairness” in 2009 for “Personalmagazin,” a German HR publication. When employees receive feedback that’s similar to what their colleagues receive, they interpret it as being “fair.” This could be a classic feedback exchange, a daily meeting, but it could also extend to salary negotiations or promotions. Even when senior managers tend to favor one employee over another, they should also set aside time to give feedback to the other employees – and take care not to forget about them in time for the next round of bonuses.
Another factor in the fairness debate is the idea of procedural fairness. This extends to involving employees in important decisions in the company, or at least giving them the opportunity to speak their mind. The interpersonal aspect of fairness extends to a respectful and friendly relationship with all employees – not just the favorites. This includes communicating with your team at eye-level. The informational level of fairness means that managers should inform their employees of news and changes within the organization, and handle this with transparency and grace.
Even when it seems unavoidable, and perhaps even practical, to favor some employees over others, leaders should know: When people have the feeling that they’ve been treated unfairly, this negatively impacts their trust in the executive management. There’s always the danger that the affected employees pull back emotionally, and no longer perform to the best of their ability. As with many cases, managers must simply act maturely and tactfully, and the rest will take care of itself.
About the Author
Felicitas Wilke studied business and journalism and attended the Deutsche Journalistenschule. She works as a freelance journalist in Munich. She enjoys writing about topics affecting the economy and has a passion for Scandinavia. She is a keen supporter of the black and yellow football team Borussia Dortmund.