Jan. 31, 2013 at 2:00 PM ET
Quick, name your boss’s favorite employees in the office.
Chances are you know exactly who they are, or you may think you’re one of them, even though “favoritism” is generally a dirty word in the workplace.
But should it be? Some experts think awarding favorite status – for the right reasons – can be an effective management tool.
“I am a big believer in the concept of playing favorites. However, you have to be absolutely clear on how anyone can qualify to become a favorite,” said Jill Geisler, author of “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” and head of The Poynter Institute’s Leadership and Management programs.
“(Managers can say), here are the things I believe in. I believe in high performance, collegiality, good workplace citizenship, and those of you who qualify under those qualities are the most likely to be my favorites.”
The rewards that come with such status might be desirable assignments, a better schedule, travel opportunities and more time and attention from the boss, Geisler said. At the same time, employees must know that they won’t be anointed a favorite in perpetuity, only for as long as they meet the criteria, she added.
One new study finds that workers feel better about themselves, are more willing to go above and beyond and are less likely to break the rules when they feel they are receiving preferential treatment from their manager.
“There is a benefit to be gained for making each person feel somehow a little more special than the others,” said Karl Aquino, a professor at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business and co-author of the study, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Business Ethics.
“With the caveat that you don’t want to make it extreme or obvious that you’re favoring a certain person,” he added.
The study was based on a combination of surveys and experiments. Everyone who took part was treated well, but some participants were treated “a little better,” which Aquino described as having the designated leader in the experiments commenting more positively about their ideas, smiling at them more and giving them more attention.
People are always comparing themselves to others and care deeply about their relative status in a group, so they’re very sensitive to the fact that they’re being treated better – an important lesson for bosses, Aquino said.
“You want to make everybody feel special, that seems to be what the takeaway of this is. If you can do it as a manager, that could be better than making everybody feel the same,” Aquino said.
“The really skillful managers can find a way to… balance this making everyone feel like there’s something special about them while not creating this wave of resentment among all the other people.”
But what about the cost to morale? Many workplace experts believe any whiff of favoritism will have a negative effect on employee productivity and behavior.
“It’s never a wise thing in any business situation for a manager or anyone in a leadership position to even give the perception that they’re playing favorites,” said Bob Kelleher, CEO of The Employee Engagement Group.
“What you’re trying to do is to get the other employees to raise their level of performance, not raise their level of suspicion.”
Preferential treatment will not typically be a good long-run strategy if it means a worker receiving more than his or her individual performance warrants, said Barry Gerhart, a professor at the Wisconsin School of Business.
Still, favoritism seems pervasive in the workplace. A 2011 poll of senior executives at large U.S. corporations found that 92 percent have seen it at play in employee promotions.
The perception of favoritism occurs often, but it’s truly unusual to have a boss explicitly demonstrate such behavior, Kelleher said. He urged managers to be very transparent when they decide who gets a coveted assignment or a big promotion because employees will otherwise fill in the blanks, usually in a way that’s not complimentary to the manager or the company.
“I believe the vast majority of times, managers do the right thing but it’s the perception that gets in the way,” Kelleher said.