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Is it discrimination or is it favoritism? Does it matter?

October 18, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Kristin Cifolelli  

When you are going to spend 8+ hours every Monday through Friday with the same people, isn’t it natural to want them to be people you like on a personal level?

When a manager sets out to build an ideal team, wouldn’t that team function better if all its members shared similar personality traits, ways of operating, interests and challenges? It would seem so. But what if that approach produces a team demographic that is mostly the same gender, ethnicity, age or some other characteristic? Should HR professionals be concerned that there is discrimination going on, or is it simple (and theoretically not illegal) favoritism at work?  What is the difference?

Economists at Maastricht University and the University of Texas have explored that question in a new study, and they concluded that favoritism is a far more powerful force than outright bias and discrimination. Discrimination in the workplace is when someone or some group is treated less favorably specifically because of their race, gender, national origin, age, disability, religion, or other protected characteristic. Favoritism is not about hostility aimed at a particular group; instead, it is about a preference for people similar to oneself.

The distinction is subtle but can produce quite different outcomes. The study provides the following example to illustrate the distinction: A white boss is responsible for distributing $300 in bonus money to three workers, one white, one black and one Hispanic. Each worker should get $100 presuming all other variables are equal. But this boss favors the white worker, giving that worker $110 and splitting the remainder between the two minority workers ($95 each). Meanwhile, another white boss is biased against African-Americans and because of that gives the black worker $90 and splits the difference between the other two—$105 each. Because the second boss acted from a negative animus towards African-Americans, he or she discriminated against that worker. By contrast, the first boss acted on positive feelings towards the white employee, and thus practiced favoritism, not discrimination. So argue the authors of the study.

Ultimately if workplace favoritism results in job decisions based on protected characteristics, such as hiring only men or promoting only younger workers, that is certainly illegal. But managers who favor certain employees because they share certain interests or personality traits regardless of their qualifications or performance (such as having more aggressive work styles, liking to hang out at the bar together after work) may not be illegally discriminating.  This pattern of favoring those with similar traits and interests is called “in-group favoritism” and can be expressed by managers in how they rate their employee’s performance, who gets allocated more resources, who is provided crucial information in order to perform the job, who participates in decision making, and in countless other ways.

While no law prevents (at least theoretically) managers from operating their departments based on high school-level politics and hierarchies, such practices clearly exemplify destructive leadership and bad management practice. Further, regardless of the Maastricht/U-Texas study, such managers would face uphill battles trying to convince judges and juries that they are only guilty of favoritism, not discrimination.

And quite apart from the potential legal pitfalls, once team members feel that good assignments, increased visibility, and access to management are benefits of being liked versus being most qualified, there is little reason to work hard and perform well.

The impact of favoritism is that it creates frustration and resentment, and destroys team morale, especially when the manager brings more and more favorite employees into positions of authority. It creates conflict where the outcome is higher turnover among otherwise qualified employees.  Ultimately favoritism doesn’t provide benefits to the organization or build a stronger team. While anti-discrimination laws are still important, HR professionals should consider educating managers and employees in how to understand their personal preferences and the potential negative impact they can have on their team and organization.

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