Do your employees think you play favorites? Three ways to tell

investment illo for RITHOLTZ column for Sunday Business section, January 1, 2012

(Illustration for The Washington Post)

As a manager, do you play favorites at work?

Probably not, but the actions you take may leave employees thinking otherwise, according to a recent report by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

After surveying about 17,000 federal employees, the MSPB found that 28 percent believed their own supervisor had engaged in favoritism within the past two years, and 53 percent felt that favoritism had influenced the decisions of other supervisors in their organization. Separately, the 2013 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings found that only 29.4 percent of employees believe promotions in their work unit are based on merit.

The MSPB report, “Preserving the Integrity of the Federal Merit Systems: Understanding and Addressing Perceptions of Favoritism,” concluded that even the perception of favoritism decreases employee engagement, hurts recruiting and hiring efforts, and damages overall productivity. Not exactly what the doctor ordered right now given the other challenges facing our government.

The report defines favoritism as granting an advantage to an employee or applicant based on personal feelings or relationships rather than merit-based criteria. It recommended agencies provide adequate training for supervisors on the merit system principles, as well as prohibited practices, and hold supervisors accountable when they violate those standards.

To determine if your actions may come across as favoritism to your employees, ask yourself the following questions:

Are you spending more time with some employees than others? There's no more precious resource than a supervisor’s time, and where and with whom you spend that time sends a signal to the rest of your team. You need to overcome the tendency of having one go-to employee you talk with all of the time, and instead set up regular check-ins with your direct reports.

Whether it's once a week, once a month or once a quarter, giving everyone similar amounts of time demonstrates a commitment to building relationships across the board. It also offers you the benefit of hearing about your employees’ successes and frustrations firsthand. When your team sees that everyone has the same time on your calendar, it sends a clear message that everyone is important to your team's success.

Are your decisions clear? What's clear in your own mind may not be clear to your team if you have failed to explain your decision-making process. You may be spending time with colleagues working on a high-priority agency goal. Perhaps you're sending one employee to a training program that others want to attend. Whenever you make a tough decision, you need to clarify your criteria and ultimately your rationale for the final outcome. Don't avoid the tough conversations, because it will only come back to you as misperceptions and rumors.

Are your employees clear about their standing on the team, including their performance and results? As a manager, it’s important to be transparent in your decision-making around promotions, pay and policies. To help you overcome perceptions of inequities, you should hold regular, honest, one-on-one performance conversations with each member of your team to clarify their contributions and opportunities for promotion. If you’re not talking regularly, they may be developing a different set of expectations about their future than you are.

Taking steps to avoid the perception of favoritism will pay dividends on a daily basis, and you’ll see results in morale and productivity. If you have suggestions for managers on the issue of avoiding favoritism in the workplace, please share your stories in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Read also:

Improving employee performance reviews

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Also on On Leadership

Study finds executive women are just as, if not more, ambitious than men