Favoritism is poison to employee morale

Dear Joan:
For two years now, my boss has treated a co-worker of mine under a separate set of rules than the rest of our department. The person (I'll call her Betty) is very often more than 30 minutes late for work, and has been "sick" more than 30 days this year. We know this because as an internal joke we documented all the sick days and all of the days late. This employee has created terrible feelings within the department and hostility towards her. To add a twist, this employee is a great friend of the boss's family.

We have tried to deal with this in the correct way. First, the employee's direct supervisors have "written her up," only to be reprimanded by the boss as "controlling" and for "trying to create soldiers to push paper." Finally, after numerous attempts to reach the boss, our supervisors contacted Human Resources. HR reacted correctly by setting up an intervention. The problem was, however, that HR contacted the boss and "warned" him. The boss talked to each employee separately and ultimately scared each one out of attending. HR canceled the meeting.

To top most of this, it is salary review and promotion time. In the two years I've worked for this company, I've received the maximum raise allowed based on superior ratings in evaluations. My area has expanded by 50% over the last year as opposed to a decline for Betty's area. When it came time to promote me, however, the boss said he first had to promote Betty to be sure there were no hurt feelings. After all, she has been with the company two times as long.

It has come to the point in our company where my supervisors are being "forced out" by our boss for continually bringing this issue up. Suddenly, they are getting poor performance reviews after 5 to 10 superior ones. All of us, except for Betty, have to live by a very tight manual of rules. We want to know what the recourse is or where we should go for help. This isn't a small company-over 300 employees locally, with nearly 1 billion in sales. We've been told we can do nothing about favoritism--what do you think?

I think this manager's destructive, vindictive behavior should be exposed. But I also believe that you could be hurt in the process. A great deal depends on the skill and sophistication of your HR department--and the backbone and leadership of senior management.

Even though you and the supervisors have followed correct procedures, your boss has made it very clear that anyone who messes with him will be hurt...and it appears that he has the position and political power to seriously damage your careers if you push this.

Before you act, I suggest that you decide what the chances are that this situation will be resolved by HR and backed up by senior management. If you suspect they will only slap him on the wrist because he will be able to sweet talk himself out of trouble, I suggest that you seek a lateral transfer inside the company or leave the company altogether. Filing a discrimination charge may also be an option but consider the pros and cons carefully before you make a decision.

Your boss's judgment has been clouded by personal friendship --and that's an unworkable, unfair situation for the rest of the employees. Only a weak manager promotes someone because they don't want to "hurt their feelings." And punishing supervisors who question his favoritism demonstrates that he can be dangerous, too.

The boss seems to be going to extreme lengths to advance Betty's career in spite of obvious evidence and opposition against it. It may even be possible that Betty and the boss are more than friends. It seems a little odd that this boss is risking his reputation for someone he can't defend in the face of evidence (If his reasons were sound, he wouldn't be so afraid of getting HR involved).

If you choose to pursue this, I suggest that you take this column to the HR Department and ask for an intervention immediately. Insist that their involvement needs to be long-term, to protect you and others from retaliation. Good luck--I hope your company has the courage and wisdom to do what's right.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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