Favouritism, actual or perceived, is a sure way for HR to alienate part of their workforce. Much of HR’s work relies on employees cooperating with them. If segments of staff don’t think HR has their best interests at heart, then they could become serious blockers to HR’s success.

From simple HR tasks, like correctly logging holiday or sick leave, to more complex HR processes, like participating in performance conversations and reviews, HR is in trouble if employees take the attitude, ‘HR isn’t there for me, so I’m not going to cooperate with them!’

favouritism staff bias

Cezanne HR recently surveyed 1,000 people from the UK and Ireland to find out the health of HR’s relationships with their workforce. One of the key questions in the survey was: ‘Who do you believe your HR team favours more?’ The results weren’t surprising, but show that HR still has some work to do in this area:

  • 45% of respondents said they think HR favours senior staff
  • 12% said junior staff, and
  • 43% said ‘Neither, I trust HR to act impartially’.

So, 57% of people perceived favouritism at play in their HR team.

The first thing that HR needs to understand, if they think their business believes HR has favourites, is if the legal/compliance element of their role is being misunderstood as favouritism for senior leaders (who often collaborate with HR on the ‘rules’ of the business). HR should make sure the decisions and rules everyone has to abide by are clear and well explained, and show that they are fairly applied to all – from apprentices to the CEO.

If showing that the same rules apply to everyone solves the problem, that’s an easy solution to implement. But if the perception of favouritism is more complex, HR needs to dig deeper to understand what behaviours/processes etc. are causing this belief.

An obvious area to probe is around career development. Do all employees think they’re being given a chance to develop and progress?

Cezanne HR’s survey asked respondents: ‘Do you trust your HR team to tell you about internal promotion/development opportunities?’

  • Reassuringly, 52% said yes, but
  • 25% said they were unsure, and
  • 24% said no (figures rounded).

It’s important for all employees to feel supported in their career development. There are great career and succession planning tools available, for example, Cezanne HR’s Career and Succession Planning module, to help HR teams excel in this area.

Avoiding favouritism goes hand in hand with DEI – lack of favouritism is an important part of being diverse, equitable and inclusive. If HR decides to delve into why their workforce thinks they have favourites, asking questions that also encompass DEI makes sense. Cezanne HR’s survey asked if people felt that their HR team champions DEI – 58% of people agreed that their HR team does. HR professionals could ask their workforce a similar question, alongside others such as:

  • Who do you think your HR team favours?
  • Is this a ‘feeling’ or have you experienced it directly?
  • In what ways do you think your HR team is impartial?
  • How has your HR team shown themselves to be partial to a particular person/group of employees?

The survey mentioned above is part of the latest Cezanne HR report on HR psychology: The Psychology of HR Relationship Building: Trust, visibility, and respect. The report also includes a case study, research and advice for HR to aid in understanding the mechanics behind good relationships and what to do to build them at work.

Shandel McAuliffe author image

Shandel McAuliffe

Now based in sunny Australia, Shandel is prolific writer and editor - particularly in the world of HR. She's worked for some big names, including the CIPD and the Adecco Group. And more recently, she's been the Editor for new HR publication HR Leader.

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