when employees complain about favoritism

A reader writes:

We’re in tourism/hospitality and gearing up for our busy season. Before we get there, I’d like to have a meeting with all the direct reports to go over policy issues, answer questions, and blow off a little steam.

We have three people on staff who were all hired at the same time and trained together but have shown remarkably different ability levels and talents. This has resulted in one member of this group receiving advanced responsibilities early on, as she is more than capable of handling them.

I have heard some grumblings through the grapevine that other staff members are feeling a little put out by her newfound authority (although, from what I hear, everyone really enjoys working with her). I don’t know how much of this is related to her age (she is significantly younger than the rest of the staff) and how much of it has to do with the fact that she simply caught on faster than the rest of the staff.

Would it be advisable to discuss with everyone at the meeting that they’ve all progressed differently and so received different responsibilities, but stress that we are all a team working towards the same goals? I’m tempted to leave well enough alone, but am preparing to go on maternity leave and don’t want to leave a great big mess that may explode once I’m gone, and I don’t want to create a problem where there’s just regular griping.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Should I intervene when one assistant is rude to another?
  • My coworker makes lots of mistakes and my boss isn’t dealing with it
  • Telling non-local employers I can only fly out once for interviews
  • What to do when a written offer is higher than the verbal offer

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon today*

    Suggestion on the favoritism issue. Instead of addressing what is really unattributed gossip in a group meeting, take a feedback and career development meeting with each of your team, one on one. It would be ideal to do this before you go on leave because you can create a clear roadmap for how you jointly agree on goals through this period. The subject is not why Jane gets more authority (we’re not here to talk about other people) but what each person perceives their own strengths/opportunities to be, where you see the same things, what things they would like to learn and how to get them there. it’s a good chance to indirectly move the focus to each person’s trajectory rather than it being on somebody else.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          No burritos yesterday, but I did find out which Marvel villain I am based on my zodiac!

          Which Marvel Villain Are You Based On Your Zodiac Sign?

          You got: Alexander Pierce

  2. Moonsaults*

    Authority and jobs are not handed out to who got there first or who’s oldest, anyone who staffs like that is asking for problems. Do not feed into it at all and do not address rumors. Show appreciation for everyone and praise their strong points equally, if that’s not enough that’s part of life they have to handle on their own.

  3. Mandible*

    Oooof. That happened to me on one of my last jobs. It was mostly data entry, and you were given bonuses if you were in the top 3, 500 for number 1, 300 for number 2, 100 for number 3. I won number 1 every month, and I was accused of cheating, people wouldn’t talk to me, etc. When I started getting more responsibility and the managers kept singling me out in emails as someone to emulate…that was the worst. I loved excelling, but I was surrounded by people who wanted me to fail. I ate lunch by myself and listened to audiobooks and music, because no one really wanted to be my friend. I don’t miss that job.

    1. Anon for this one*

      Been there too. It sucks. I wondered if it would have been better if a small promotion in title had happened – been made a team lead or something. Maybe the hint of authority would have made those achievements seem like less of a competition to others? Idk.

      1. Mandible*

        We put movies/tv shows on to an internet marketplace. And every movie/tv show was a “point”. Basically, people started hoarding items that were “easier” than others, keeping things in their name, etc. I didn’t do any of that, I just didn’t goof off like most of my coworkers. *Shrug*

      2. A Bug!*

        A coworker used to tell me that using keyboard shortcuts was cheating because it allowed me to enter data more quickly than I could if I used the mouse. Not just obscure keyboard shortcuts, either; I’m talking using tab to switch between fields.

        (At first I offered to write her a list of the keyboard shortcuts I used so that she could learn them too, but it didn’t take me long to realize that the only effort she was prepared to expend on the problem was in attempting to bully me into underperforming. Crabs in a bucket.)

        1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

          I had this coworker too! She insisted that there was *no way* my work could be accurate because I was working so quickly and got really pissy about using keyboard shortcuts.

    2. Rachel B*

      People are the worst. They love failure in their co-workers. It must be because it gives them something to talk about. Sorry to be so negative but I’ve dealt with similar jealousies on more than one job.

    3. Moonsaults*

      LOL cheating.

      Laughter aside over their BS, I’m sorry that you dealt with miserable brats who couldn’t understand that sometimes someone is going to be better than they are at any given task.

      I wouldn’t want to be their friends anyways if they will accuse you of cheating because you can do the job better.

    4. Jaws*

      Stack-ranking seems like a bit of a management failure here. Instead of rewards for #1, #2, #3, there should be rewards for a certain fixed number of items entered with a certain low error rate. Then the co-workers need to get better in an absolute sense to get a bonus; they don’t have to beat you.

      This also reduces the apprehension people will feel about hiring new people.

      1. FrequentLurker*

        I’m coming in late at this one (working too hard and too long hours to read AAM! Noooo!!), but I had to say this is an excellent point. I am putting this in my toolbox for future use when I lead small teams.

  4. Sherry*

    I sort of have this issue at one of my jobs. I was hired at the same time as a few other people, and one was soon given extra responsibilities. He’s a great guy, but I’m envious. I know part of the reason is that he has better availability than I, which I can’t really do anything about. But he’s also a go-getter, while I’m a bit reluctant to speak up for myself. I don’t think my supervisor did anything wrong, but part of me is bummed that I’m not being offered the same chance.

    1. Anon today*

      Sherry, You can fix this. Have a convo with your manager and throw out there the things you would like to learn and do. Ask what you need to do or demonstrate to earn that. It’s harder for some of us who are more introverted but your manager doesn’t know if you don’t put it out there. You own your career, take charge!

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      part of me is bummed that I’m not being offered the same chance.

      You don’t ask, you don’t get. You already have “no.” While it would be nice if the supervisor offers the same (or similar) opportunities to all the new hires in turn, no one said life is fair. You have nothing to lose by speaking up (politely) and asking what you have to do in order to help out with any work that involves [thing you’re interested in]. It may be that the supervisor just doesn’t know you’re interested in it. It may be that you lack the necessary skills or education — and then it will be up to you to decide how to fix that.

    3. LQ*

      There’s this weird thing that I think I’m not the only one who believes, but that if I do good work people will give me more/more interesting/better work/promotions. This is true sometimes. But most of the time you also have to say, “Hey, I’d really like to know what I can do to get (task/work/promotion/training/etc).”

      This is a skill I really recommend trying to work your way toward. You can learn it, and it is a skill that is valuable and worth learning. You can practice with friends for the initial conversation. Having it, and having it more than once, is so valuable. And if your boss says, “I can do that if you X.” Then you know. And sometimes your boss will go, “Oh you wanted to do that? Yeah, please!” (I got a really fun task this way once, my boss did it and he hated it, I was super excited about getting to do it so it turned out to be a perfect fit. If I hadn’t asked he never would have assigned it to me, he assumed everyone else hated it too and since it was infrequent he just did it.)

      Ask. You won’t be offered a lot of chances in life if you don’t ask. It’s hard, but if you do it with genuine how can I get there? It will be a good way to find out.

    4. Lana Kane*

      It doesn’t sound like your coworker was offered the same chances either, he went after them by putting himself in front of your supervisor. You can certainly do the same! It might seem odd at first, but I’ve learned that more often than not, I’ve had to be the one to take initiative in the workplace – people don’t usually just notice. You can do it!

    5. NW Mossy*

      As a manager, I love love love it when my staff say “I’d like to be part of X,” “I’d like to learn more about Y,” or “What can I do to get involved with Z?” By all means, say something!

      The simple reason is that I’m not a mind reader. I don’t necessarily know by observation what you love about your job and what you don’t, particularly if you’re not one to wear your reactions on your sleeve. It’s also not uncommon that because I have some authority over my team, they feel like they need to say they love everything even when they don’t. But if you clue me in on your preferences in a positive way (“I really dig A – do you have more stuff like that?”), when opportunities come up, I’m that much more likely to think of you and pass it your way. I genuinely want to give people work that interests them and that will help them grow, to the extent that I have the ability to do so.

      I’ll also add that it’s a good idea to keep an open mind and be willing to tackle a stretch assignment even if it makes you nervous or you’re scared you won’t succeed. This year, I nudged two of my staff into high-profile assignments with a public speaking component. Both are deep experts but somewhat anxious about being in front of a group, and I specifically picked them because I wanted them to get comfortable with slightly higher stakes and get the opportunity for higher-ups to see them and appreciate the value they add to our business. They were both petrified, but knocked it out of the park and I’m super proud of both of them for rising to the challenge – it’s going to be a big positive for their performance reviews!

    6. Moonsaults*

      You have to be your biggest fan and get yourself what you want. Don’t wait until someone offers it to you in these cases.

      I know how it is to not feel comfortable speaking up, it was my biggest issue for years that got in the way of being even more successful. You have to take risks and put yourself out there, otherwise people will rarely just drop responsibilities in your lap.

    7. I don't suck*

      Regarding favouritism, people say you should tell your boss that you want this or that opportunity. Which makes sense. But what if you do all that, you tell your boss that you want to get involved in some specific project and gain certain experience, and still nothing happens. Or like what happened to me, my boss promised to make me responsible for a certain portion of a certain project, that I specifically asked for. But after working on it for 1 day he gave it to the new guy. Not because new guy had more experience or skill (he had zero experience). And not because I screwed up somewhere. I never got an explanation. In the end I got stuck being another junior colleague’s assistant.

      Sometimes it’s just clear favouritism.

      1. Mananana*

        And sometimes the favoritism is due to those hard-to-define soft skills, like the ability to get along well with others. Or the other worker has a better attitude, is more enthusiastic, or simply, more likeable. If I have to choose between two equally skilled workers, I’ll choose the one who’s the most pleasant to be around.

  5. James*

    My first reaction: OF COURSE you have favorites. You’re human; it’s inevitable. As long as you show favoritism towards those who objectively are better at the job, there’s no problem; it’s only when you grant less-competent people positions of authority based on friendship, or pass over good people in favor of friends, that it becomes a problem. It’s pretty rare in my experience for someone to excel at their job and be genuinely unlikeable (though such people are very useful), and the better they are at their job the more you’re typically going to like them, because the job is the basis for your relationship with that person. Your job is to reward certain behaviors, and you can’t hamstring yourself just to satisfy jealousy in the guise of pseudo-egalitarianism.

    My more measured response, though, is that if the employees think the boss plays favorites unreasonably, there’s probably an issue with feedback/promotion/job assignment somewhere. Most likely they don’t understand what the criteria are, or feel that the administration isn’t following it. Don’t get me wrong, this could be them being entirely off base–but it’s a good idea to periodically review your methods for handing out assignments, for evaluating workers, and for promoting/granting more authority to them. This could easily include one-on-one meetings with your workers, to see what specific issues they have (with a focus on the general picture, not a specific worker). If everything’s going perfectly you’ve demonstrated that you’re willing to talk to your employees about these issues; if there’s a problem, you can find it and address it.

    1. LawCat*

      I totally agree with this. This is an excellent plan and can help address a the perception of favoritism. I had a conversation recently with a colleague about two different managers I had had in the past. We’ll call the first one Cersei, who I did not think was a good manager, and the second one Tyrion, who I thought was an excellent manager. I said one of the things I really disliked about Cersei was that she played favorites.

      My colleague said, “I’m sure Tyrion has favorites.” And I said in response, “But Tyrion does not *play* favorites. Whether you are a favorite or not does not enter into how Tyrion treats the people he manages.” The problem with perceived favoritism is there is a lack of understanding of criteria or any seeming rhyme or reason to it other than liking some people better. Why did Cersei talk to Jaime about promotional opportunities and how to advance, but did not talk to Brienne, who is in a similar position? Tyrion will talk to both Jaime and Brienne about their career goals and coach them on advancing even if it would take Brienne longer or maybe it would not ultimately be with our organization. (And as someone who was one of Cersei’s favorites, I did not know what I had done to achieve her favor. I knew I was doing a good job, but I wasn’t the only one doing a good job. It created weird dynamics on the team and distrust of Cersei.)

  6. MegaMoose, Esq.*

    Woo, late breaking AAM due to technical issues!

    On the question of intervening if you’re witnessing one assistant being rude to another one: absolutely do it, even if the recipient doesn’t seem to let it get to them. My spouse lost an excellent assistant by “minding his own business” with respect to this kind of thing – my perspective is that if you’re in a position of authority, it’s absolutely your business to try and ensure that the work environment is a pleasant one for everyone. Even if no one is complaining, even if the target is 100% zen, you’ve got to bet that plenty of people feel uncomfortable witnessing that kind of behavior and knowing that no one is going to speak up to stop it.

    1. Seven If You Count Bad John*

      “dear AAM, I have a peer who is rude to me ( but not to anyone else on my team) and she does it right in front of my boss, who doesn’t seem to care. I try to stay professional and be the bigger person but it’s just continuing. Shouldn’t my boss be doing something to control this? What should I do? It really hurts that my boss is cool with this.”

  7. designbot*

    I’d also check in with the person you’ve given additional responsibilities to before you go on leave, make sure it’s going ok. I was in that position in my first job out of school–about a year in my bosses started to say that I shouldn’t be doing all the teapot drafting myself but should start redlining drawings to have Sansa (who was my age, started only a few months after me, graduated the same year as me, only difference is I had done more internships during school so was catching on to some things more quickly) pick up. Well I don’t think that anyone said that to Sansa, so when I began to do so things got really uncomfortable. A couple of times she even flat-out refused, to which I could only say “well our project manager asked me to give these to you, so you’ll need to talk with him about that.” Anyway, just in case anything like this is going on I’d check in with the employee who’s advancing faster to make sure she’s actually comfortable with how things are going.

  8. NicoleK*

    Sometimes coworkers are jealous….other times the favoritism is so blatant, one would have to be a saint to not be envious.

  9. Cookie*

    I do think the manager needs to take a good look (and even talk to a peer or friend) about potential favortism. I don’t agree that it comes from underperformers. I have seen favoritism play a huge role in decisions at work. I have also been on both sides of it…

  10. sstabeler*

    I’d ask another manager to double-check I wasn’t playing favourites ( simply because favouritism can be subtle- it’s possible that the putative favourite is, in fact, doing the same amount as others, but getting more credit for it) but other than that, I would sit down with the complainers- individually, and in private, and explain to them that if they want similar increases in responsibilities to Jane, this, this and this is what they have to demonstrate they can do.

  11. Chris*

    The criteria for rewards should be clear, simple, and justifiable on the basis of the goals of the organization and its clients / customers, and how well every individual provides value that supports those goals. There will absolutely be people who provide more value on this basis than others. There will be those who perform ahead of the expected experience level. There will be those who inherently grasp the goal and align with it more easily than others, and achieve success more easily, or to a higher degree.

    The point is to provide equal OPPORTUNITIES to succeed for everyone, to ensure the basis for judgement is transparent and clear to all, and to reward those who succeed in a way that is fair and equitable with respect to the value they provide.

    The impression of favoritism is only hard to combat when there is
    a) A lack of transparency in the evaluation criteria; or
    b) an actual lack of supportable justification for rewards received

    If neither of these exist, it’s easy to dispel the impression of favoritism by simply saying: ‘We evaluate people on an individual basis, but I understand you want ‘x’ or ‘y’ that you see some others receiving. Well, here’s what you would need to do or accomplish, in order to be able to get those things. I understand your goals, and this is the work I see that has to go into meeting them. Would you like to work towards this? These are the opportunities that I see to work on it…”

    Obviously you have to have the ability to follow through on this, and control over rewards received, to make this a meaningful conversation.

  12. Anon4this*

    What does everyone think of favoritism that isn’t promotion related…
    I work in a group of 10 females, with one male. My direct manager was promoted recently, and prior to the promotion we didn’t have the best of relationships. I addressed with her directly that I didn’t feel respected by her because she would often snap at me when I asked questions (I was still very new, and she was a Senior teapot maker), and would shoot down my suggestions in meetings. After the conversation, she made more of an effort to be nicer to me (I’ve never experienced this before. I am very friendly, and highly respectful of those I work with, so I couldn’t understand her disdain towards me)

    Now, I report to her. And she has two other direct reports. I’ve found that she is more hands-off with me compared to her other reports (she is very kind when they ask questions, she helps them delegate their workload). I’ve become very frustrated by this. She hasn’t been too helpful in my professional development, or managing my workload. I have been helping to backfill another position for the past few months… so I’ve taken on extra work, but it hasn’t seemed to phase her why I’m stressed. When I tried to explain to her that I had a lot on my plate and need help, she responded by saying “maybe you just aren’t cut out for a large corporate environment”. I’m still hurt by this comment, as all of my feedback has been positive about my work.

    I can clearly tell who she likes on our team. She is a touchy-feely person who has before hugged everyone but me when she returned from a trip. She gave a newer co-worker a hug and a little kiss on the head when it was her birthday (we were all about to start a team meeting, so this was in front of everyone). She will touch people on the arm, ect. I also notice that she is very, very kind and helpful to any males that work with us (we sit in an open office space, and she sits very close to me), and I don’t see the same type of snap that she displays with me, with other male workers. (and to be clear, I have been told that I am a great communicator, and I always thoroughly think about what I have to say before I ask her anything)

    I’m nervous to address this directly with her based on her past comments to me. I also can’t take it to her manager, as they are also close; I think it would just make things worse.

    It’s very discouraging to me, and the environment I work in feels toxic because of it. I’m at the point now where I feel moving on from this group would be the best move (I have heard rumblings from others who worked alongside this group that the environment has always been toxic and had favoritism like this) Also, I work with a few other departments and get along wonderfully with them. So I’m very perplexed by this…but I’m still pretty new to a corporate environment, so this could just be a more common thing…

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