MSPB Report Focuses on Favoritism

For federal managers, making sure that every employee feels equally respected and listened to requires constant monitoring. The perception of favoritism in the workplace can have sharply negative effects on office cohesion, teamwork, and overall productivity. Unfortunately, given human nature, federal managers can often find it nearly impossible to keep everyone in their offices happy and on the same page. According to a recent report by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), 53 percent of the 17,000 federal employees surveyed believed that favoritism had affected the judgment of supervisors in their organization, while 28 percent felt that their own direct supervisor had shown bias towards favored employees in the office. The report, titled "Preserving the Integrity of the Federal Merit Systems: Understanding and Addressing Perceptions of Favoritism," defined “favoritism” as the granting of an advantage to an employee or applicant based on personal feelings or relationships rather than merit-based criteria.

Perceived favoritism in the workplace was often seen through three causes, the report concluded:  intentional favoritism, where the supervisor intends to make decisions based on personal connections rather than merit; unintentional favoritism, where the supervisor’s decisions have been influenced by interpersonal relationships without the supervisor’s conscious awareness or a lack of knowledge or tools to help the supervisor make merit-based decisions; and a misperception by employees, such as when professional relationships exist that do not conflict with the merit systems, or when a mentor or supervisor provides more opportunities to those who demonstrate the ability and motivation to take on new roles.

Whether favoritism in the workplace is real or just perceived, the effects can be damaging. The report found that perceived favoritism in a workplace led to decreased employee engagement and satisfaction, a drop in an office’s ability to recruit and retain highly skilled employees, increased conflict both between employees and between employees and management, and an overall decrease in performance and productivity. 

The fine balancing act between running a meritocratic and effective office and maintaining the perception that there is no favoritism bias is one that all federal managers must perform. Managers and supervisors must always be aware of how their actions can be perceived, and strive to create an atmosphere of fairness. The MSPB report listed recommendations that all federal managers can take advantage of.

Managers should:

  • Make decisions (e.g., regarding selections for promotions, career-enhancing work assignments, training opportunities, and awards) that are objective and based on work-related criteria, rather than relying upon more subjective feelings.
  • Assess the needs of the work group in terms of competencies and actively strive to fill these gaps through selection and/or training.
  • Document decisions carefully and exercise transparency, whenever possible, such as by providing feed-back to employees.
  • Rotate acting supervisor responsibilities among those who are qualified and interested as this is a key developmental opportunity.
  • Treat all employees with respect.
  • Facilitate two-way discussions with all employees.

Given the increased stress of government jobs during budget pressures, along with an uptick in employee-manager adversarial actions these stressful situations engender, taking any steps necessary to maintain a productive and cohesive office can make the life of a federal manager much easier. With the widespread perception of favoritism found by the MSPB’s report, implementing some of the report’s recommendations in your office may aid you in achieving a productive 2014.

FEDS Professional Liability Insurance gives you the freedom to manage. For more information on your specific exposures now, how professional liability insurance protects, or how the FEDS program differs from other insurance programs, please visit the FEDS website and choose the Executive and Managers tab.

Posted in Manager Matters

Tags: MSPB, Merit Systems Protection Board, Federal Managers Association, advice for federal managers


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