Why managers play favorites—and how to spot it

Do your managers “play favorites” with certain employees? Most managers would probably say “no,” but people often harbor unconscious perceptions that can influence day-to-day decision-making and job reviews of the employees they manage.

Studies on performance reviews show that several factors unrelated to employee performance can impact evaluations conducted by managers.

Such favoritism—or even perceived favoritism—can lower employee morale and lead to discrimination lawsuits. That’s one reason it’s important to help your organization’s managers learn to recognize nonperformance-related perceptions that can unintentionally impact evaluations—for better or worse.

Advice: Train supervisors be aware of these three nonperformance factors that often come into play when giving feedback to employees and doing performance reviews:

1. Hiring choice. Managers often give better reviews to employees they hire or at least had a hand in choosing. Subconsciously, managers tend to make a greater emotional and professional investment in the success of employees they are responsible for bringing aboard.

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2. The mirror. Like the general population, some managers tend to unintentionally identify with people of their own gender, race and socioeconomic class. Such identification may subtly influence judgments about which employees perform better.

3. Personal relationship. Managers may give better job reviews to employees they like, for whatever reasons. For example, personable employees with good communication skills can ingratiate themselves with managers and improve the perception of their actual performance.

Bottom line: Managers must objectively follow performance evaluation criteria. Encourage them to challenge the job evaluations they give, asking whether they are based solely on performance. They shouldn’t depend entirely on memory for facts and examples in reviews. The best bet: Keeping a performance log during the year on each worker, making objective notes on performance and leaving out unrelated observations. 

Warning signs

  • You spend more time supervising certain employees and thinking about ways to enhance their careers.
  • You enjoy talking to some employees more than others.
  • You dread conducting certain evaluations but look forward to handling others.
  • You relax when talking to some employees but feel tense when communicating with others, even those who perform well.