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How Do We Overcome the Perception of Favoritism?

I am a manager who has created a situation of perceived favoritism among my staff. I hired a new employee who happens to be a friend. I made the mistake of putting forth a work-improvement suggestion made by the new employee. She and I have been suffering the backlash ever since. How do I go about repairing this fiasco? —Oops, office manager, government, Long Beach, California
November 16, 2011
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Related Topics: Employee Communication, Change Management, Motivating Employees, Performance Appraisals, Policies and Procedures, Dear Workforce, Workplace Culture
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Dear Oops:

As you've shown by writing to Dear Workforce, this is an important problem: Your integrity is being questioned. While you may not have favored your friend, appearances are important. People can make decisions based only on what they see. That's one reason why, in general, it's good to tell people your rationale when making unpopular decisions: They may not be aware of all the information or issues.

If you have set up systems through which you can benchmark performance or outcomes so that you can objectify rather than personalize performance, it would help. As you suggest, there are likely to be more issues down the road, especially when the time comes for performance evaluations or disciplinary actions. You may need to excuse yourself from supervision in some cases.

In fairness to you, managers are often seen as being friendlier with some employees than others—every person finds it easier to be close to some people than others. That's one reason that open and equal access is important. The perception may exist that you are not being fully open to others' suggestions. Regardless of whether that perception is based on reality, you need to address it directly.

Once you have made clear your rationale, the next step is to actively solicit (and act on) ideas from other employees. We're not talking about things like "Should we get a new water cooler?" but rather on work-process and similar changes.

We recommend doing this informally by talking with all employees and asking for their input, on the spot or whenever they're ready. A formal program may seem as if you're not taking it seriously, versus this one-on-one conversation. Any time you ask for ideas or suggestions, however, you must make sure of a few things:

• You should be biased toward action—if the idea is seen as being neutral or "only a little costly," it should be adopted. This encourages people to bring forth more ideas, (often "neutral" ideas) do save money or raise quality.

• Before rejecting an idea, make sure you fully understand its costs and benefits. This may require additional conversation. Likewise, when rejecting an idea, give strong reasons why and seriously consider counterarguments.

• The person who proposed an idea can be empowered and made responsible for its implementation—as long as he or she has reasonable support.

• You must be willing to put a reasonable amount of time and effort into soliciting, considering and enacting ideas.

In the future, carefully consider whether your other reports have similar encouragement to give input (and are seen as having similar opportunities and encouragement) and whether those with the same job role really do have the same access to you as your friend does.

SOURCE: Katherine Zatz and David Zatz, Toolpack Consulting, Teaneck, New Jersey

LEARN MORE: On the flip side of favoritism are morale-damaging employee cliques.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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 The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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