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Playing favourites in the workplace is never a good idea

Written by Eric Johansson on Tuesday, 19 February 2019. Posted in People

While it’s understandable you may get along better with some employees, favouritism in the workplace can be detrimental to your franchise

Playing favourites in the workplace is never a good idea

The poetically inclined may state that the strongest friendships are forged in the fires of battle – whether literal or figurative ones. Overcoming adversity as a team brings people closer together. This can certainly be true in small, tight-knit startups where the founding team and the first group of employees work together to ensure the survival of the business. It can even be argued that these intimate relationships with co-workers and employers are what enable the business to scale. However, as the company grows, franchisors and franchisees face a huge risk if they keep putting some staff ahead of others. Indeed, it can become the poisoned chalice grinding the growth of your business to a halt. “Favouritism in the workplace can lead to toxic relationships borne out of resentment and jealousy,” warns Dawn Smedley, appreciateologist at O.C. Tanner Europe, the employee recognition and engagement expert.

Of course, no one is suggesting all friendships in the workplace are detrimental or that camaraderie should be discouraged. “Some people genuinely click better with each other than with others due to personal backgrounds, beliefs, politics [and] all that sort of stuff,” argues Nigel Toplis, managing director at multi-brand franchisor The Bardon Group. “It’s not unusual [to be tempted] to navigate to people with similar views. I don’t see it as being necessarily Machiavellian. I think it’s natural human behaviour.” Yet, natural as these inclinations may be, picking people for tasks or promotions due to your personal preferences rather than their professional acumen can end up damaging your business. “You have to ask yourself regularly why you’re doing certain things,” says Toplis.

Similarly, some franchisors and franchisees may be tempted to treat certain personnel better due to their performance or the departments they work with. “In many businesses the sales team is put on a pedestal when in fact without involvement from other departments – such as marketing and HR – the same success [wouldn’t] be possible,” suggests Bryony Edwards, director at Go Find Me, the online recruitment portal. “Everyone plays a role in the success of the business and [it’s] important that staff feel this is true.” If they don’t, it could risk demotivating staff. “Favouritism can be incredibly detrimental to the morale and productivity of a workplace, leading to a lack of motivation and even resentment between colleagues,” she argues. 

That’s why, normal and understandable as it might be, franchisors and franchisees are advised to avoid playing favourites.“Of course, we [all] want to help our friends and family through life,” remarks Sue Tumelty, founder of The HR Dept, the HR franchise. “However, it can be extremely damaging to the culture of an organisation if fair and transparent processes aren’t in place for the treatment of people.” From nepotism where executives promote relatives in a Donald Trump-esque manner to their sexual partners receiving preferential treatment due to their relationship, there are many ways it can manifest. But no matter the circumstances, treating people differently because of who they are and not their professional chops is fraught with risks. “There can be many threats to your business from favouritism,” she warns.

While the people who enjoy preferential treatment surely delight in the opportunities offered to them, others may look more negatively at it. “When staff can see unfair and unjustifiable behaviours by managers, it leads to a very demotivated workforce and productivity drops,” suggests Tumelty. And that’s when it could wreak havoc on your employee turnover. “Ultimately, this leads to good staff leaving,” she says. 

Franchisors and franchisees shouldn’t avoid favouritism only because of the risk of constantly having to source new talent but also due to the legal price. “After costly higher turnover of staff and demotivated staff, the biggest risk is being taken to an employment tribunal for discrimination,” explains Tumelty. Indeed if a discouraged employee can point at the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 – disability, gender reassignment, age, sex, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race and religion or belief – and suggest that there were an underlying reason why the employer treated them worse than others, they could have a good claim to bring to the tribunal.

Given the risks facing employers prone to favouritism, it’s clear franchisees and franchisors must remain vigilant and avoid it. The first step is to recognise it. “Leaders need to be mindful of their interactions moving forward, making sure no one in the team is feeling left out,” advises Smedley. This means being honest and asking themselves if they’re spending too much time with certain employees, pick them for high-status projects, ask them for counsel and if the lines between friendships and professional relationships are blurred. “If the answer is yes to some or all of these questions, then it’s likely that favouritism is at play,” she says.

If you’ve caught yourself in the act, there are fortunately ways to amend it to ensure the company embraces inclusivity and transparency. “Leaders need to be encouraged to listen to their employees and get to know them on a personal level so that they can include them in things that matter the most,” argues Smedley. “Companies must also foster an environment of open communication.” This doesn’t just include being open to employee feedback and transparently talking about staff performance but also to create exit interviews when workers leave the company, hearing what could’ve been improved. 

She has reasons for believing it. Based on a survey of more than 14,000 professionals across 12 countries, O.C. Tanner’s 2018 Culture Report found that continuous performance management leads to employees being 62% more likely to feel their performance is fairly assessed at their organisation and 36% more likely to trust their leader. “[So] this is a crucial tool to for avoiding favouritism,” she suggests.

As part of this push, franchises could set up policies to ensure everyone is treated equally. And these policies should snap into action well before people are even employed. “As well as the job description, the recruitment process should incorporate a clear person specification, detailing the knowledge, experience and skills needed for the role,” says Tumelty. “All candidates must meet the specification to be interviewed. In promotion, carrying out regular, evidence-based performance appraisals will help with decisions.”

Ultimately, avoiding favouritism will benefit your company. “If you want to run a good business, then businesses are built on trust and they’re built on respect,” says Toplis. “They’re built on a common goal and on relationships.” And as in any marriage, honesty, transparency and being fair will always ensure a more long-lasting union. “[If] you do that and you council with people then you can hopefully keep the negative consequences of favouritism outside of your business,” he concludes. 

About the Author

Eric Johansson

As web editor and resident Viking, Johansson ensures Elite Franchise is filled with engaging and eclectic entrepreneurial stories. While one of our most prolific franchise writers, he has sharpened his editorial teeth by writing about entertainment and fitness. Follow him on Twitter at @EricJohanssonLJ to catch up with his stream of consciousness.

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