It's human nature to like some people more than others, but playing favourites in the workplace is a dangerous game.
There are two main types of favouritism, according to Paul Russell, managing director of Luxury Academy, a UK- and India-based training company. Arbitrary favouritism can happen when you treat a particular staff member differently because you get along with them and maybe enjoy socialising with them. Performance-based favouritism can happen when you naturally acquiesce to requests from high-performing employees more than other employees.
Either variety of favouritism can be easy to fall into because managers are often unaware they're even doing it.
"While most managers would never admit to playing favourites with their staff, it's something they need to be aware of and guard against," said Jessica Laina, senior employment relations adviser with Employsure, an Australia-based company that provides workplace relations support to employers and business owners.
Laina cited a 2011 study by Georgetown University that found that 84% of senior business executives surveyed believed favouritism was happening in their workplace.
"Whether it's real or perceived, subtle or overt, employees are highly attuned to bosses who may be playing favourites amongst their staff," she said.
Employees on the wrong end of favouritism can be demoralised, and that can erode company culture. When one or two employees are positioned on a pedestal, it can be difficult for the team to work together cohesively. And it's often not great for the favourites, who may have to deal with resentment from their colleagues.
In addition to improving morale, avoiding favouritism is also good for your personal development.
"Constantly surrounding yourself with people you like can limit your growth as a manager," Laina said. "Learning how to work with, manage, and develop people you may find personally challenging will make you a more complete manager, which is an admirable goal for any professional."
If you think you might be unintentionally subjecting your office to favouritism, here are a few tips from experts on how to level the playing field.
1. Keep lists
As a manager, you may be oblivious to the number of times you've given a particular employee a plum assignment or asked an employee to lunch, but you can be sure your employees have taken notice.
Karen Dillon, author of the Harvard Business Review Guide to Office Politics, recommended keeping lists of all your employees and the times you've favoured each of them in some way. Just make a simple note of when you've given an employee an extra perk or a desirable assignment or when you've included them in something that others might like a chance to do, too.
"If you hold yourself accountable on all dimensions, you'll notice if you have patterns of picking the same people," Dillon said. "And you'll reap the benefits of that because people will understand that you're trying to encourage their growth and they'll give you better performance."
2. Find common ground
It can be tricky to bond with employees you seemingly have nothing in common with, but odds are you can find some commonality with little effort. By getting to know each employee a bit better, you can help prevent any unintentional favouritism that might result from having more rapport with some team members than others.
Start making an effort to chat with employees you don't know very well. You might find you are fans of the same sports team, are both dog lovers, or enjoy the same film genre. You don't have to be best friends, but finding a common interest can help overcome any feelings of negativity towards that employee and make you more balanced in your approach to assigning projects and tasks, Laina pointed out.
Maybe you don't invite a certain employee to a sporting event because you know they won't enjoy it, but you can invite them to lunch or take them into a meeting with another part of the company so they can get exposure.
"There are tons of ways to make someone feel special — it's not about the event as much as it's about choosing to include the employee in something," Dillon said.
3. Develop a deep and varied bench
Playing favourites is also a bad strategy because it can diminish your exposure to multiple perspectives.
"Having a deep bench and knowing the capabilities of employees beyond your one or two star performers is really good for you as a manager because you won't have to turn to the same people and burn them out," Dillon said. "Having everybody firing on all cylinders requires them to feel you treat them fairly and with respect."
Russell agreed, adding that leaders shouldn't forget that there are others on the team who could potentially be performing just as strongly.
"A single employee alone, no matter how talented, isn't going to meet the company's every objective, but a strong team working together could," he said.
Russell suggested putting objective performance measures in place and helping staff understand the measures and how they will be assessed against them. Rewards such as advancement should be based upon objective performance measures, and even unofficial rewards need to have procedures in place that everyone is aware of.
If a project comes up that is perfect for one of your favourites, he suggested pairing that employee with another employee, perhaps one who is less experienced, which serves a dual purpose of evening out the workload and giving less experienced employees a chance to learn and prove themselves.
4. Get an honest broker
It can also be helpful to get an outside perspective to hold you accountable to any signs of favouritism.
If you're concerned that you have a tendency to favour one staff member over others, Dillon recommended asking a colleague from another department to attend one of your meetings as an observer and give feedback on your delivery and management style to see if there is anything, or anyone, you've overlooked.
5. Be transparent
It always helps to be transparent and communicative with your employees about how you're making decisions on whom to choose for a project or presentation.
Letting employees know their turn is coming, even if it's down the road, will ensure they don't feel forgotten.
"You don't have to overexplain everything, but letting them know, for instance, that you're trying to balance their workloads, so if anyone feels they have too much or too little, [they] feel free to speak up," Dillon said. "It goes so far for them to know you're open and trying to do the right thing."
Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.