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Undeserved Promotions

A researcher uncovers evidence of rampant favoritism in promotion decisions.

June Cover​Jonathan Gardner proved what many HR professionals already know from anecdotal experience: Favoritism influences promotions. Gardner is chief operating officer and senior managing director at Penn Schoen Berland, a Washington, D.C.-based research and consulting company specializing in communications strategies. While doing research for his executive master's degree from Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, Gardner was surprised by how widespread favoritism is—and by how willing executives at the highest levels were to admit witnessing it in their organizationsand even practicing it.

How do you define favoritism?

Favoritism is preferential treatment of an employee on the basis of factors that do not directly relate to a person's ability to perform his or her job function, such as the person's background or ideology, or the hiring manager's gut instincts. In a March 2011 survey of 333 senior executivesin companies with at least 1,000 employees, we clearly defined favoritism to exclude age, race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

How common is favoritism in promotion decisions at U.S. companies?

Of the executives surveyed, 92 percent perceived that favoritism occurs in large organizations, 

75 percent said they witnessed favoritism in their organizations, and 23 percent said they have practiced it. We were surprised by that. Nine percent even said they had used favoritism in their last promotion decision.

What effect does widespread favoritism have on an organization?

Favoritism is a morale killer. It also leads to bad promotions. In our research, 83 percent of executives said favoritism leads to poorer promotion decisions.

Are corporate procedures to prevent favoritism effective?

Ninety-four percent of respondents said their companies have procedures to avoid favoritism, but they're not effective.In most companies, promotions are done by committee or need executive approval, but a lot of this is just rubber-stamping the manager's choice. HR professionals are not as involved in promotions as they are in hiring.

In the survey, 56 percent of senior executives who had multiple candidates for a promotion said they already knew who they wanted to promote before evaluating all of the candidates. Of that group, 96 percent went on to promote favored employees.

How can employees who aren't the favorites earn promotions?

Being ethical and a good communicator are the most important qualities for a leader, respondents said.

Senior managers often have a different definition than junior managers of what makes a good employee. Senior managers may prefer face-to-face communication over texts or e-mails. They usually expect people to be in the office promptly and to dress more formally. Junior executives tend to take a more casual approach. Perceptions affect a promotion. Modify your behavior and adapt to your boss's expectations.

Address shortcomings that have been identified, and communicate the actions you have taken to improve. Learn from constructive criticism.

How can HR professionals minimize the role favoritism plays in promotions?

HR professionals need to be the objective third party. People tend to automatically assume they didn't get a promotion because of favoritism. The key to ending the perception of favoritism is transparency.

Be brutally clear about the criteria and qualifications before the promotion process begins so that it is indisputable why one person was chosen over another. If the promoted employee was not 

100 percent qualified, explain why an exception was made. Transparency is essential throughout the process.

Our research showed that in large organizations, 30 percent of the time only one candidate is considered for a promotion. HR managers need to support more, better-qualified candidates. Lastly, encourage managers to strive for fairness above all else.

The interviewer is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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