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What is the Impact of Favoritism on Employee Engagement?

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Research shows that employees have an “internal sensor” that registers what is referred to as organizational justice. They are very aware of actions that go on in the company that are not “just” or moral.  One particular study characterized this sensory process as registering on three levels:

– Looking In (impact on the self)
– Looking Around (impact on others in the org)
– Looking Out (impact of the company outside — think community).

Favoritism is seen as unjust to be sure, and its corrosive effects on engagement and performance are powerful. One of the challenges is that those demonstrating favoritism are rarely self-aware of what they are doing, and as a result, they are very defensive when challenged.

Two key points:

1) How do you identify it? We have a very simple employee engagement assessment tool and we always include several open-ended questions designed to get at this issue. I can think of one organization, in particular, where the engagement scores were very high, in large part because the company recently hired several hundred new employees that had been laid off elsewhere. When we looked at the scores aggregated by manager work groups, one was almost half the level of the others. We then took a look at the answers to our open-ended questions for that work group and the most repeated concern/complaint was overt favoritism. Within a short time that manager was let go — the poison was in too deep to reverse. If you are not using an employee engagement assessment tool that can aggregate scores by manager or work group, a 360 degree review process can also identify excessive favoritism.

2) How do you fix it? This is tough, largely because the people doing it are either in denial, don’t see it, or think it is okay.   What we have done in the past is tie it into the firm’s CORE VALUES, showing how favoritism is not congruent with those values.

Another way is to explicitly talk about a moral workplace. I don’t mean this in a religions sense, but in the sense of organizational justice — a “just” place to work where we care about the quality of our decisions and behaviors. Here again, it needs to link to the organization’s CORE VALUES.

BEST PRACTICES TIP:  Encourage your management team to think in “moral” terms.  Ask them to list where the organization is doing a good job, and another list of where improvements can be made.

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Engagient provided a safe environment for managers to openly share comments, issues and concerns related to the workplace culture and practices. Facilitation and careful probing by Engagient staff provided our managers with the view and challenges facing senior leadership and how managers may be helpful in the process, identifying opportunities to enhance their leadership skills.

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--Mary LaRowe, President and CEO
St. James Mercy Health
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