John Klossner

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A new way to think about favoritism in the workplace

In a former life, I was a playground basketball addict. One of the basic rules at every urban playground I've ever been on is that the team that wins the game stays on the court (for the other rules, see below). When there are several dozen players waiting for the upcoming games, it is in your best interest -- if you don't want to wait a couple hours to play again -- to win the game.

I consider myself a person with a sense of fairness (this will be covered by Steve Kelman's "positive illusions" reference, below). When I first started playing on playgrounds, and had dibs on an upcoming game, I would take the next four people who had been waiting the longest. You know -- first come, first served. Not surprisingly, that didn't often lead to a win. I quickly learned that fairness wasn't as important as the 6'8" guy whose team had just lost.

This would lead to some awkward situations: Everyone would ask you how many people you had for the next game, and you had to use all kinds of code to tell them there was no room on your team without saying you were saving three places for the ringers who were inexplicably losing the game in progress. "I have enough." "I'm all set." We've got our squad." "We don't need any more." Most people understood the unsaid clues. Some would try to argue their way on -- "Where are they?" "You have five?" (This was especially tricky when, early in that day's games, there were only three people waiting and you planned on recruiting four players from the team that lost the current game.) Occasionally someone would get upset when they realized that someone who had just lost a game was staying on with your team. But, for the most part, people understood.

All this was to win a pickup basketball game or two, and hopefully get more playing time for myself. I hope I'm not wrong in assuming that a typical federal agency manager is more motivated to succeed than a teenager on a playground.

I was reminded of this while reading various accounts concerning charges of favoritism in agency hiring and promotions.

In a recent blog entry, Steve Kelman contends that federal employees who claim favoritism when being passed over for promotions might be suffering "positive illusions" or -- to put it in plainer language -- they aren't as good as they think they are (see the reference to my sense of fairness, above). I'm sure on the basketball courts of my past there were many players who didn't get chosen who thought they were better than they were ( I'm sitting here with my hand raised), but that doesn't mean there wasn't favoritism going on.

I propose a different line of thought. Rather than deny that favoritism is taking place in the workplace, admit it. Of course there is favoritism going on. Wouldn't we be better off by acknowledging this and moving on from there?

The larger problem in this situation is that so many federal employees think that favoritism is rampant. If people think there is no chance for advancement or reward, they will not be motivated. This in turn could cause managers to only hire and promote people they know because they are comfortable with either their presence or their work, which will then cause the employees to claim favoritism, which will cause them to lose motivation, which causes the managers. ... I think you see where this is heading.

Instead of spending all this energy denying that preferences exist, let's all agree that managers have preferences, which should calm things down.

Note that I didn't say "solve the problem." By agreeing that favoritism exists -- and it always will as long as human beings are involved -- we need deal with the various lines that separate "good" favoritism from "bad" favoritism. For example, good favoritism is having a preference for skilled, motivated employees who pay attention to detail. Bad favoritism is being particular to someone you see at family dinners.

Is it favoritism if you're particular to people with advanced degrees and high grades? Is it favoritism if you prefer working with other members of your gender? Is it favoritism if your favorites are coworkers you've worked with for over 10 years who you know are skilled and experienced? Is it favoritism if you're paying someone back for a job they gave you earlier in your career? Is it favoritism if you, as a manager, bring in someone from outside the agency who you've worked with in the past? Is it favoritism if you have a preference for people who can help the office recreational basketball team?

As you can see, the argument over favoritism contains many fine lines. It's just that arguing that favoritism doesn't exist isn't one of them.

Meanwhile, here are the other basic rules of the playground:

1. The guy playing in long pants and dress shoes is either a really good player who doesn't need to look good or a really bad player who doesn't know any better. There is no middle ground.

2. If you are on a playground and two or more players from a Division 1 college basketball team show up, they get in the next game. No questions asked.

3. On your first visit to a playground, don't call a foul on anyone other than yourself.

4. If you are shoved into a basket support and the other guy says "local rules," you might want to check out other playgrounds.

5. Wool socks are a warning sign.

6. Don't play at a park with bullet holes in the backboards.

Posted by John Klossner on Mar 11, 2010 at 12:19 PM


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