Growing up, you may have encountered situations where favoritism was evident. On a sports team, the coach may have had a favorite team member who always got the most play time. Or at school, a teacher may have always seemed to favor a particular student, letting her get away with more than the average student could.
Unfortunately, favoritism can follow you into the adult working world. While not always on purpose, a boss may naturally gravitate toward someone on his team. It could be because that person performs the best, but it could also be because their personalities mesh well or the employee has mastered the skill of “kissing up.” Whatever the cause for favoritism may be, it can be frustrating for workers if they don’t seem to be one of the boss’s favorites.
The impact of favoritism
While it’s not always easy to identify or prove that a manager is playing favorites, you may notice that a certain employee always seems to get the coveted assignments, is often called upon by the boss to help him think through an issue or brainstorm ideas, or seems to get recognition or praise more frequently than the rest of the team.
The impact of favoritism may also be evident when promotion time rolls around. A 2011 study by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business found that the vast majority of senior business executives surveyed (92 percent) have seen favoritism at play in employee promotions, including at their own companies (84 percent).
Elene Cafasso, president and founder of Enerpace Inc. Executive Coaching, says that if you find yourself in a situation where someone else gets a promotion and you don’t, try to find out why. “If someone gets a promotion, have the conversation with your manager about your career path and how he/she can help you develop to be ready for the next opportunity,” Cafasso says. “Do you need more education? Different projects? More cross-functional team projects? Supervisory experience? You won’t know until you ask.”
The fuzzy line between favoritism and fairness
Cafasso points out that while it may seem as though your boss has a favorite, there may be a more objective reason as to why that employee is so highly regarded. “Favoritism is awfully hard to prove,” Cafasso says. “Many times we believe others are the ‘favorite’ when in actuality, they just have the skill sets for the job. Or maybe they’ve asked for certain projects/developmental assignments. We are all responsible for managing our own career. So if you see others getting plum assignments, ask your manager what you need to do to be qualified for similar projects.”
Overcoming the issue
If you notice that others seem to be getting more of your boss’s attention, don’t let it automatically discourage you. “If you realize you’re being bypassed for exciting or high visibility projects, perhaps approach it from a comment such as ‘The project that Mark and John were selected to work on is very intriguing. Tell me, would someone with my skill set be considered for similar projects in the future? I’d love the opportunity to apply my X skills to similar opportunities,’” says Tara A. Goodfellow, president of Athena Educational Consultants Inc., a career development consulting company. “Oftentimes, it’s just habit that drives a boss. Perhaps the person being passed over is the most introverted while the others have no problem jumping in and expressing interest. Perhaps the person is the newest and the boss is one that expects folks to prove herself first. I think keeping the mindset that there are probably several variables that you’re not aware of can be helpful and alleviate some of the defensiveness that might be felt initially.”
When it may be time to move on
If you’ve tried to be more proactive about your desire to be noticed by your boss, and nothing seems to change, you may want to consider whether the job or company is the right professional or cultural fit for you. You won’t grow in your role if you feel your success is stifled by your boss’s favoritism toward others.
“If indeed a boss is truly playing favorites, it will create disengaged employees, passive-aggressive behavior and presenteeism,” Cafasso says. “Basically, people ‘check out’ if they don’t feel like they can get ahead or get a boost in salary, etc. If you find yourself in this situation, it is definitely time to take charge of your career. Start reviewing internal postings to see if you can move to another area. At the same time, start an external search.”