Fairness is easy to understand in theory, but difficult to measure in practice. Even so, the virtue is a key element in the creation of many successful personnel policies. Two recent Government Executive stories -- one about the Office of Personnel Management's decision to delay implementing rules that would expedite the promotion process for employees, and another reporting problems with pay, training and morale at the Homeland Security Department -- served as reminders that employees remain deeply concerned about policies that rely on managers to make subjective distinctions among the rank and file.
Fears of favoritism remain a significant barrier to winning employee buy-in for pay-for-performance systems and other management reforms, but favoritism is hard to quantify and often in the eye of the beholder, say many human resource observers.
So, how can agencies better gauge favoritism and prevent it in the first place?
"One must first distinguish between negative and positive favoritism in the workplace," said Paul Rowson, general manager of WorldatWork, a consulting firm that designs training programs for managers, particularly those who are implementing pay-for-performance systems. "A good manager 'favors' employees who consistently deliver on commitments, are responsive to client and customer needs, demonstrate good team and collaborative skills, and are highly engaged in their organization's mission."
Jon Desenberg, policy director at the Performance Institute, said favoritism will be easier to spot once agencies adopt more stringent and effective performance measurement systems. Currently, he said, favoritism creeps into evaluations when managers convince themselves that broad, subjective questions used to measure performance are useful, even though they can leave significant room for bias.
"I'm continually amazed at the managers who insist they have developed good measures for their employees, when in fact they are only subjectively measuring [their] impression of an employee," Desenberg said. "Many organizations are comfortable simply measuring everyone against three or four very general criteria, things like 'communications' and 'teamwork.' Not only are these not actual performance measures, [but] they reinforce the ability of supervisors to play favorites within the context of the system."
And while the most reliable favoritism barometers are still employee surveys and complaint procedures such as grievance boards, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, agencies could do more to follow up on reports of favoritism, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. They could gather information by conducting focus groups and individual interviews to determine what employees perceive as favoritism, and target educational campaigns or tweak practices as a result of their findings.
"We also have to admit that some favoritism is going to slip into almost any process," Desenberg warned. "Building an appeals process, review system or audit into the system is a first step in making inroads against favoritism."
Even the legal definition of favoritism in the list of prohibited personnel practices under Title 5, Section 2302 of the U.S. Code is vague and open to interpretation. It's forbidden to "grant any preference or advantage not authorized by law, rule or regulation to any employee or applicant for employment…for the purpose of improving or injuring the prospects of any particular person for employment." Is an outstanding employee who also happens to have a good working relationship with her supervisor benefiting from favoritism when she is promoted over another co-worker? It's hardly a clear-cut situation.
Perhaps the best approach for managers trying to improve personnel systems is to acknowledge fears of favoritism and discover where they originate.