As you are probably aware, workplace favoritism has been around for decades, probably even centuries. The nod and the wink — and a nice helping of cronyism — has for many years been a more effective method for climbing the corporate ladder – or even getting a job – than hard work, qualifications, and ability.
But with the advent of personnel department and its various incarnations of HR and talent management, there was hope that cronyism might be replaced by fair, open, and meritocratic recruitment and promotion processes.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Based on a study from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, favoritism is alive and well. According to MSNBC, the survey found that:
- 92 percent of the senior executives polled had seen favoritism at play in employee promotions;
- 84 percent had seen it at their own companies;
- 23 percent had practiced favoritism themselves;
- 29 percent said their most recent promotion only considered a single candidate;
- 56 percent said that when there was more than one candidate for a promotion, they already knew who’d get the job before deliberations were made;
- and 96 percent reported promoting pre-selected individuals.
It’s no surprise that favoritism is still a problem in corporate America. It takes a brave, strong, and politically astute HR professional to tell leadership that it shouldn’t be hiring its mates. And even if a recruiter or HR professional does take a stand, leaders and/or hiring managers might take great offense and shut them out of the hiring process in the future.
This puts HR professionals in a quandary: cronyism may seem to be an untouchable subject, but employees positively abhor favoritism and expect something to be done about it. Favoritism removes the sense of fair play in promotions, making employees feel that they have no or limited career opportunities – and that’s one of the top reasons why employees leave their organizations. In fact, one CareerBuilder study found that favoritism was the top concern workers had about their bosses. It drives down staff engagement, productivity, and loyalty
There is an opportunity for HR professionals to do more about favoritism, but how can they tackle the issue in a politically astute and effective way? It’s a tough problem for which there is no easy solution — hence why favoritism is still with us.
But there are some subtle and persuasive methods that you, as an HR professional, can use to tackle favoritism.
Of course, you should start by ensuring that there is an open and transparent policy on equal opportunities and open advertising of internal roles, as this will reduce favoritism, but I am sure you already know this.
In addition, you could try to quantify the negative impacts of the favoritism in terms of bad hiring decisions, reduction in overall team engagement, and lowered productivity.
For example, you might find that overall team engagement suffered or turnover increased as a result of favoritism. Move from an emotionally and instinctually based argument to an analytical and data-backed argument to highlight the monetary impacts of favoritism. Research shows that HR teams that use data-driven insights instead of instinct are four times more likely to be listened to and respected by leadership and colleagues, so this approach is likely to be more influential than emotional appeals.
Apply this data-based approach to the hiring process by using predictive analytical stats to show which candidate profiles deliver the greatest profit per employee. Show that employee profiling delivers more real returns than the favoritism approach.
I believe that these kinds of data-based insights that expose favoritism for what it is and quantify the financial damage that favoritism causes can influence those who are most wedded to favoritism, pushing them to adopt a more meritocratic process.