COMPANY CULTURE / AUG. 03, 2014
version 6, draft 6

Favouritism vs Discrimination

In an earlier post I highlighted some tactics for those of you that want to schmooze your way to the top.  The tips were based on academic research that highlighted eight distinct strategies (or types of schmooze if you will) that commonly work wonders in ingratiating you with your boss.

Of course, the flip side of all of that is that it’s quite likely to make you very unpopular with your peers. Few of us like an obvious brown-noser, with the primary reason being that those folks often get ahead in their careers not due to their inherent talents, but because they’ve sucked up to those making the decisions enough to be in their good books.

What’s more, if you’re managing a team of people, there are obvious benefits involved in ensuring the right people get promoted, and by right people I mean the people that have earned it through their ability and performance, not those that have sucked up to the boss.

After all, casting aside the clear performance benefits of that kind of behaviour, it’s a matter of fairness, right?  We have a wealth of anti-discrimination rules and legislation to promote just that kind of meritocratic fairness in the workplace, and the same should apply to favouritism too.

A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin looked at favouritism at work, and specifically favouritism compared with discrimination.

We need to reconsider what we know about the effectiveness of anti-discrimination policies and the advances against discrimination in the labor market,” said Jan Feld, an economist at Maastricht University and lead author of the study. “These two preferences generate different outcomes with different distributions of welfare, so that determining their relative size is economically important and, as we have shown, possible.”

The motivation behind the research was the apparent similarity between how we treat discrimination in the workplace and how we treat favouritism. The two are however very different, with favouritism seeing those like us supported, whilst discrimination sees those that are different to us held back.

Just under 1,500 people participated in the research, which saw the work of each person evaluated by a panel of judges. Some of the judges had access to demographic information about the participants, such as their gender and nationality, whilst the remainder did not.

The results highlighted how judges would tend to favour those participants that were the same nationality as them, but interestingly would not discriminate against those who were not.

The researchers suggest that when viewing unfair practice through the lense of favouritism rather than discrimination should lead managers to change how they behave to ensure fair outcomes for all. They suggest that managers should dampen enthusiasm for those like them rather than viewing those in minority groups as their equals.

Of course, the rise in distributed or social appraisal systems significantly helps the situation as it encourages a wide canvas of opinion on an individual from across the organisation. Such an environment makes it much harder for a single individual to make or break a career.

That single change in how people are appraised is likely to render a more significant outcome than trying to shift the mindset of individual managers. Hopefully it’s a trend that will continue to spread in the coming years.

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