02 March 2008

Favoritism - Part One

I've been watching the effects of favoritism recently, in my workplace and in one or two other settings. Although there's a lot of water-cooler discussion about it, I was surprised to discover that a Google search on the term brought up a measly 1.5 million hits. By comparison, a Google search on Britney Spears, at this moment, brings up over 79 million links, and one on Viagra brings up [ahem] 82 million. Just for fun, I've also searched on 'menopause', and found 13.8 million links.

Which means that, at least in Google-world, people talk nearly 10 times as often about menopause as they do about favoritism.

This is interesting, because while only women go through menopause directly, and it occurs once in a lifetime, both sexes suffer the effects of favoritism, and favoritism can and does happen over and over. [I'm not dissing menopause; in fact, at this time in my life I have very good reasons to respect it. And equally good reasons to respect black cohosh and soy isoflavones, but that's a subject for another time and place.]

So today I'll bring the total number of Googlable links on favoritism up to 1,510,001.

This link will take you to a nice, compact little page on favoritism as bad HR policy [putting it mildly]. It's a good start, but it just scratches the surface, describing office favoritism as a situation in which certain people are fast-tracked and get plummy assignments while others are dead-ended and ignored. In other words, favoritism is seen here as a situation in which one person receives an excessive number of good things, and it stops there.

The workplace favoritism I've seen [on two coasts, two continents and an island, and in three languages] hasn't been so benign. It's not merely that the favorite gets the plummy assignments and everyone else gets the drudgery. Usually, in workplaces with a designated favorite, I've also seen a very clearly designated anti-favorite. One person gets the lion's share of the good stuff, but this is largely possible because other people - or one other person - will get the lion's share of the bad stuff.

Where there's a favorite, there always seems to be a scapegoat as well. This is important, because while the pet is being coddled and fussed over, the anti-pet is quite often doing a lot of the favorite's scutwork in addition to their own assignments; and if the situation is sufficiently pathological, the pet will even be rewarded on the basis of work done by the anti-pet.

Let me provide a few workplace examples from my own observation and experience. I've been fortunate enough not to be involved directly in most of these, but I've witnessed them all, and I've been an anti-favorite myself.
-in a group responsible for scientific oversight of projects [think grant proposals or university contracting], the only projects that were reviewed in depth by the chair were those assigned to one particular reviewer. The committee actually had a dozen reviewers, and the chairperson's favorite had a very limited scope of review. As a result of this favoritism, multi-million dollar proposals received cursory, sloppy oversight from the chairman, and even this miserly portion of time and attention was begrudged them. Meanwhile, on more than one occasin the work of the committee came to a total standstill as the chairman spent days on a single diagram that accompanied a very minor proposal for which his pet was responsible.

-in a [different] group responsible for international scientific relations, the [different] chairperson was annoyed past all endurance to discover that his particular anti-pet was one of the most competent scientists on the committee and had diplomatic skills that even exceeded his scientific proficiency. The anti-pet was so well liked and respected by the foreign scientists involved that several of them approached the chairperson about giving this person an award or promotion on the basis of his phenomenal performance within the group. The inevitable result was that the anti-pet instead received no recognition whatsoever for his efforts, followed at year end by an extremely poor evaluation, in which he was criticized for being 'too international' and was told that his outstanding performance on this committee was 'unfair' to the chairman's favorite - a mediocre, xenophobic plodder.

-in another workplace, a long-standing anti-pet was removed from one department by a company-wide reorganization. Since this type of vacancy must be filled immediately, without regard to hiring freezes etc., one of the two people who had been pets previously was instantly demoted by the department Head to anti-pet status. The original anti-pet had been used to do much of the scutwork for the two pets; the newly minted anti-pet found themselves doing the scutwork for the remaining pet, as well as their own scutwork which the old anti-pet had previously done. Within 18 months, the new anti-pet found another job, citing favoritism towards the remaining pet as their main reason for departure.
Now, to assist in pattern recognition, let me share one or two parallel situations based in families rather than workplaces.
-Sue was the firstborn and could do absolutely nothing right in her mother's eyes. She was criticized daily, while at the same time used as a household maid-of-all-work. Her younger sister and brother, by contrast, were doted upon, and Sue was made responsible for cleaning up after them, dressing and feeding them in the mornings and evenings. She was even expected to buy and wear used clothing so that the family could afford new clothing for the two younger children; her mother, however, also bought new clothing. Only Sue dressed in hand-me-downs. Sue's father did nothing to intervene or support her while this was going on. It was only when Sue entered college and saw a therapist for depression that she realized how unequal her standing in the family was - and also discovered that her parents' marriage had been a 'shotgun wedding', brought about when her mother became pregnant with Sue.

-Deanna, unlike Sue, was very much her father's daughter. Unfortunately, this meant that both Deanna and her father were subjected to the wrath of Deanna's mother. Deanna and her father were quiet, reserved, studious types; her mother was outgoing, loved nothing more than a few beers at the pub, and sneered at books and those who read them. When Deanna was six, her mother became pregnant without informing Deanna's dad that she was 'trying'; 'Mom' then blatantly favored the baby, reared him to be a male carbon copy of herself, and encouraged him to despise both his Dad and his older sister. Dean, the boy, began stealing from Deanna when he was in elementary school; by secondary school he was stealing and selling her possessions to get money for drugs; when Deanna went away to university he stole and tampered with her outdated Driver's License and was then arrested for drunken driving - in a friend's car, under her DL number.

Deanna's dad was no more supportive of Deanna than Sue's dad was of Sue. He was a classic enabler, insisting that Dean would be just fine if Deanna would simply behave more lovingly towards him, in total denial of the fact that it was Dean who initiated the hostile behaviors. His own wife's hostility towards himself and Deanna was ignored, as was her blatant favoring of Dean. After university, Deanna left her home town for graduate studies on a full fellowship, and her parents - at the instigation of her mother - promptly disowned her for 'abandoning them'.

-Another prime example of family-based favoritism comes from Anna Valerious' own life; I will let her tell it to you in her own words. Think of Sue and Deanna as you read what Anna has to say, and you will see many parallels.
You can complete the picture, with your own observed examples from church groups, Scout troops, etc.

There are a number of common features to favoritism, wherever it occurs - in family, workplace, church, or other settings. To sum up:

1. Favoritism is imposed by the dominant personality in the setting where it occurs. Sue's mother, Deanna's mother, Anna's mother, the committee chairpersons, the department Head - all were the most powerful individuals in that particular setting.

2. Favoritism is ignored or enabled by other potentially dominant personalities in this setting. The fathers in Sue's, Deanna's, and Anna's case were essentially absent parents, leaving their daughters to the mercy of their mothers. In the workplace favoritism examples, there was generally nobody to appeal to equal in stature to the chairpersons, and anti-pets are normally afraid to go to higher ranking officials with their concerns. For good reason.

3. Favoritism is endemic in unhealthy groups, whether family, workplace or other settings. In fact, the presence of favoritism is a strong indicator that the group is unhealthy. The presence of an anti-pet - a scapegoat - especially if they are used to carry the 'burden' of the favorite - can be regarded as conclusive.

4. Favoritism may result from either laziness or abusiveness, but always, ultimately, results in abuse. The disinterested chairperson in my first workplace example was simply too lazy to spend time on all of the proposals that ultimately crossed his desk. He used favoritism as an excuse to avoid spending much effort on the proposals that were not being reviewed by his 'pet'. But when other members of the team insisted that he pay sufficient attention to their proposals as well, he was incredibly blunt, sarcastic, and mean in turning them away.

Deanna's father, Sue's father, and by inference Anna's father, simply didn't want to stand up to their wives on behalf of their daughters. It was easier, more comfortable, to 'go along to get along' - as long as they accepted the abuse of their child, they could avoid being abused. At this point, the line is crossed from laziness to collaboration.

And when an anti-pet is deliberately selected and laden with odious chores to spare the favorite the necessity of getting its hands dirty - especially when that favorite then receives some form of professional recognition or even promotion based on the work done by the anti-pet, who receives no credit whatsoever, then the line has been solidly crossed. Abuse is no longer a byproduct. It has become the objective.


Anonymous Jordie said...

So, are there other reasons for favouritism, other than, as in Anna's case, narcissism or character disorder in the dominant person in the group?

This is an interesting topic. Is favouratism temporary, or is it just convenient for the workplace, or whatever situation you find yourself?

05 March, 2008 14:47  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Hi Jordie

Oh, absolutely, there are other forms of favoritism. Carolyn Hax did a column on this in the Washington Post just a couple days ago - linked here. She talks about the natural tendency for us to be more at ease, have more in common with, some people rather than others, and she tackles the most difficult place of all where this happens - a mother and her own children.

There will always be people one feels closer to, easier with, more inclined to trust. The difference between this preference and favoritism is that it's not generally considered 'good form' to use this feeling of greater affinity as a justification for treating one child, colleague, student, etc. obviously and significantly better than the others. And rubbing the others' nose in that preference is really beyond the pale.

We can't help what we feel, we can't help who we like, in other words, she says, but we can help how we act. When it matters. When it would be damaging to someone, who is undeserving of that damage, for us to act on it.

She even gets into the temporal aspect of this kind of favoritism - a poster relates how she preferred one son, then when he went to college, discovered wonderful things about the other one.

I, being a major cynic, had to wonder whether that poster might not have discovered the wonderful things a hellava lot sooner if she had ever bothered to look at her younger boy long enough to see them. One can assume the wonderful things were always there, and the kid didn't suddenly undergo a seachange because his older brother was elsewhere.

But that's beside the point. There is such a thing as affinity, and it's OK. Acting on it in certain situations is OK, in others not OK, and most of us can feel which is which pretty easily... so when people flout this, and rub our noses in their preferences, there's usually something more than mere cluelessness involved.

08 March, 2008 21:04  

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