Illustration: Ashley Siebels
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
That’s Orwellian logic you may know well if you’ve ever worked at a place where some people get all the perks, and others get all the work.
The very American idea of the work family depends on maintaining the truth— or fiction — that everyone is treated equally in the workplace.
I learned how quickly friends could become jealous enemies at one of my previous jobs. When we found out that a couple of my co-workers were able to work from home and leave early while the rest of us had to deal with the horrors of subway riders and overnights, we seethed.
The unfairness of it all kept nagging at me. Why did I have to be a vampire who couldn’t socialize or see the sun, while the favored ones kept getting better daytime hours? Why was I getting squished between five subway riders with varying levels of hygiene, while other coworkers got to work from the comfort of their bed? What made those lucky few so special? What did they have that I didn’t?
I never got a satisfying answer and I’m sure it was a cause that contributed to some of my co-workers leaving.
Unsurprisingly, then, studies show there is one thing bosses can do to improve teamwork and morale: stop playing favorites.
Favoritism: the boss’s worst habit
This is the toxic environment favoritism causes, and I’m glad a study has come along to back me up.
A recently published study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior found that favoritism increased loyalty and engagement for those who received it—but it was also the root of envy and a competition that tore apart teams.
An example the researchers gave would be an employee thinking that, “my status at works depends on my performance relative to others.”
Researchers found that employees who witnessed their co-workers being favored felt especially jealous when they weren’t the object of favoritism as well —but the envy was muted when their manager showed them favor too.
The study also found a correlation between being being envied and ostracism. Feeling ignored and isolated at work led to the employees’ decisions to leave.
For companies, the employee turnover that results from favoritism by managers is a big reason to stop the practice. Hiring new employees is one of the biggest uses of managers’ time.
Younger employees notice favoritism more
Young employees are quick judges of favoritism. Unsurprisingly, younger employees (like me) are especially sensitive to being denied opportunities that could further our careers. Called “idiosyncratic deals,” these special work arrangements could include company-sponsored training, exclusive lunches and happy hours, and customizable hours and schedules.
Those are the social and professional developmental resources younger employees crave, in part because they are signs of advancement and respect.
Try making special work arrangements less special
These special work arrangements for favored employees are only on the rise. They’re increasingly being used to retain and promote top talent. In a 2011 survey of 303 senior business executives at U.S. companies, 84% said favoritism happens in their workplace.
This latest study doesn’t mean that managers should stop making special arrangements altogether in the modern workplace. Just don’t let it become so obvious that everyone else feels second-class.
Even better, create an environment that’s as equal as possible. We should follow the lesson of what the researchers concluded: employees felt less envious when they believed that the deals were “negotiable and available to everyone.”