Eliminating Favour & Bias in the Workplace - Is It Possible?

I often tell my kids that I have no favourites. And I actually don't. But you prefer HIM, one would cry. You prefer HER! 

No, I tell them, neither of you are my favourite. That position is reserved for my bike. That puts them in their place.

However, each comes with a perception that - occasionally - I might prefer one over the other. It's hard as a parent to strike a balance, and it's equally hard when you have a workplace that contains even more people.

A recent incident in the police force resulted in a senior officer being fired for having given confidential information to a promotion candidate. In other words, using seniority and rank to apply favouritism to their preferred candidate, resulting in gross misconduct.

This is a very blunt example of bias in the workplace, and yet bias is perceived - for real or not - by employees every single day. 92% of senior executives say that they have witnessed favouritism in the workplace, and a quarter admit to actually favouring some employees over others.

Why favouritism is harmful

Well, just like the kids, you end up with people in a sulk. The kids storm off to their bedroom, the employee storms off to Indeed and looks for a new job. 

Favouritism breeds resentment. I once knew of a leading marketing agency that actively favoured certain employees who had been there for a long time. They even went so far as to cordon off an area at their Christmas party for the favoured employees, who were showered with champagne (not literally) and the more expensive food, while the underlings sat at a separate table.

How disgraceful is that? Can you imagine being sat at that lesser table and not feeling some kind of resentment?

A culture of favouritism comes right down from the top of the business and is very hard to remove.

Speak to any ex-employee of that business and they'll tell you (if they were on the lesser table) that senior management had no respect for employees, that morale was always low and that breaking into that favoured group was nigh-upon impossible.

As a result, the churn was significant. 

Cutting favouritism out

Obviously, the very first step to cutting out favouritism is recognising that it exists in the first place

And that's hard, if your senior team is the one applying the favouritism.

It takes a pretty special HR professional to turn to the leadership and give uncomfortable truths, but an evidence-based layer is always useful. Exit interviews would give qualitative data, whereas employee retention data would be quantitative. You may need both.

Retraining on favouritism and bias - for all people managers in the business - is going to be the essential second step. This will help people managers understand where they have friendships with direct reports and how this may be affecting their professional relationships with those where they don't have friendships. 

Understanding how reviews are carried out, too, will be essential. Are they qualitative or quantitative - in other words, are they based on emotion or are they based on hard KPIs? A more merit-based approach (in the latter case) is a good step towards eliminating bias.

And not cutting favouritism out

Or, of course, you could be very open about it and say that you have your favourites. But that would result in all of your non-favourites leaving. Or at the very worst, storming off to their bedrooms.

This isn't, obviously, a choice. The symptoms of bias in the workplace will be obvious - cliques forming, people leaving. The first step is to identify the symptoms before they overwhelm the organisation, and to pinpoint who is leading the culture of favouritism and retrain them before it's too late.

Published on Apr 06, 2023 by Gareth Cartman