It didn't take long for Lisa MacColl to realize her boss had a pet in the office.
It wasn't a four-legged creature or a fish in a tank. The pet was a member of the staff who was favoured above everyone else by the department manager.
"They had lunch everyday," recalls Ms. MacColl, who now works as a freelance writer in Kitchener, Ont. The boss's favourite "got all the important projects" and attended industry conferences. "Nobody else got a chance to go."
What really got to Ms. MacColl and another employee was how the boss's pet often worked short days and made personal phone calls during business hours without drawing any flak. "When we did the same thing, it became a performance issue that would be noted in our files," she said. "It wasn't fair at all, and everyone in the office knew about it."
Favouritism is one of the top peeves that workers have about their bosses, according to CareerBuilder.com. Last December, the online job site completed a survey of nearly 4,000 American employees and found that nearly one-quarter thought their manager played favourites.
"Favouritism in the workplace happens because we're human beings," said Gayle Hadfield, principal at Hadfield HR Consulting in Vancouver. "Some managers may not even realize they're doing it."
It's not unusual for highly competent employees to become the apple of their manager's eye because they're the ones who get the job done and make it easier for the department to meet business targets, Ms. Hadfield said.
But in some cases, the chosen one may simply be the employee who knows which words of flattery make the boss feel important - the sycophant who arrives early at meetings or office parties to secure a seat near the powers that be.
Favouritism in the workplace is "just plain wrong," said Cori Maedel, chief executive officer at Jouta Performance Group Inc. in Vancouver.
"It's unhealthy to have a favourite at work," she said. "Because when managers have favourites, they tend to forget about the other employees they're also supposed to be mentoring. They're not there to bat for them for when they need help, or when it comes time to put their name forward for a salary increase."
The risks of favouritism
Companies that don't address favouritism in their workplace run the risk of losing good employees, Ms. Maedel said.
"Employees don't leave companies - they leave managers," she noted. "So if you don't do anything about your manager who plays favourites, you're going to lose good people."
Companies that want to prevent favouritism - or even the perception of favouritism - need to build a culture in which everyone's contributions are recognized. Often, said Ms. Maedel, managers are generous in praising their star performers but forget to thank the "steady Eddies" who deliver consistent, albeit more modest, results.
Ms. Hadfield said companies may not realize they have a problem with favouritism until they notice the telltale signs - low workplace morale, decreased productivity and high employee turnover.
To root out the problem before it becomes serious, companies should conduct regular employee surveys and include questions that poke at the possibility of workplace favouritism.
"Ask questions such as 'Do you think your manager treats you fairly, and addresses the needs of all the employees in your team?'" Ms. Hadfield suggests. Questions related to workplace favouritism should also be asked during exit interviews with departing employees, she said.
Not feeling the love …
For employees left out in the cold by a boss who plays favourites, Marshall Schnapp, a Toronto career coach and owner of conflict-resolution firm Solution ADR, offered this piece of advice: Now is not the time to be modest.
"Put yourself on your manager's radar - promote yourself and your accomplishments," he said. "A lot of people don't do a good job of promoting themselves and a result, they continue to be overlooked while the boss's favourite continues to shine."
And if your manager continues to tune you out?
"I would talk to the boss about the issue in a professional, objective way, focusing on the impact of the behaviour rather than criticizing the behaviour," Mr. Schnapp said. "Instead of saying 'You're playing favourites and I don't like it,' say 'I'm feeling a bit left out these days and would really like to play a more active role in our team.'"
In cases where a manager's bias towards one employee is really wreaking havoc in the workplace, Mr. Schnapp recommends moving up the chain of command or talking to someone in human resources. But be sure to come prepared with facts, not conjecture.
Ms. MacColl agrees. In hindsight, she said, she should have documented the long lunches taken by the boss and his pet, and the many times the favoured employee did personal tasks on company time, rather than focus on work - which was supposed to include training Ms. MacColl. "My work suffered because of all these things," she said.
… or feeling too much?
There are many advantages to being the boss's favourite, including a more pleasant work life and more chances to move up the ladder. But the favoured employee can also be ostracized by co-workers and viewed by senior managers as an opportunist.
When office favourites move into management, there's a good chance they won't get the support of their new subordinates - often the same people who felt left out and overlooked before.
"What goes around comes around, so it's important to treat your co-workers the same way you would want to be treated," Ms. Maedel said. "If you're on a career fast track because you're the favourite, then be sure to bring other people with you - because nobody gets anywhere by themselves."
Office pets often know they are held in special favour, and can be uncomfortable in the role. Mr. Schnapp said it's important for them to shine the spotlight on their co-workers, especially when the manager is around. "Make sure you share wins and credits in front of the boss, so the boss knows it's not just you, and your fellow employees see that you're not a threat to them - you're actually supporting them," he said.
And when it's time for lunch, "invite other people to join you and your boss," he said. "If you want to change the workplace dynamic, then you have to start including the other people on your team."
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