Choose Your Weapon

By Brian Friel

Under federal personnel rules, managers are supposed to treat employees fairly and equitably. The government's bureaucratic human resources system is designed to make sure they make decisions based on merit, performance and results, not on friendship, kinship or personal characteristics.

But one of the most common complaints of federal employees is that their bosses play favorites. In a 2002 Office of Personnel Management survey, only 36.1 percent of federal workers agreed that promotions in their work units were based on merit. Less than half agreed that arbitrary action, personal favoritism and coercion for partisan political pur-poses are not tolerated. Only 47.4 percent thought awards were based on how well employees performed their jobs. If employees' perceptions are correct, favoritism is rampant in the federal government.

So what to do about it?

A systems-minded person might suggest changing the rules. Complexity, it could be argued, breeds corruption. Simplify the rules and it would be harder for managers to hide behind processes that allow them to do what they want while making it look like they're following the rules.

A training and development person might say keep the rules the same, but suggest providing managers with more education on how to follow them. First-time supervisors can't be expected to learn and then apply hundreds of pages of personnel policies on their own. Longtime managers could always use refreshers.

A communications person might say people complain about favoritism because they don't understand managers' decisions. In addition, people often think their performance is better than it is. If managers were taught to communicate more clearly, then perceptions of favoritism would flag as employees better understood the reasons managers selected, rewarded, or promoted certain employees over others.

A pessimist might advocate doing nothing, arguing that subjectivity is here to stay. As in Olympic gymnastics, there's no way to objectively assess people's potential, or their actions in many of the activities of the federal government. People play favorites. It's the way we are. The government is overseen by politicians, for whom favoritism and nepotism is second nature, and there's no way to avoid a trickle-down effect.

The pessimist may well be onto something. When survey results are broken out by agency, they usually reveal that charges of favoritism are least prevalent in agencies with identifiable, measurable results. The Patent and Trademark Office's employees, who are governed by quotas, are among the most likely to say that results are the basis of managers' decisions. Favoritism is a more common charge in places like the State Department, where results are more difficult to quantify.

In reality, there's room for all four views. If managers knowingly and willingly play favorites, then there's little to do but hope the government's bureaucratic system, coupled with an ethical observer, will catch and discipline them. For managers who play favorites because they don't know better, the training and development approach is the right answer. It's time for a lesson in communication if it ends up being a perception problem.

And if the pessimist is right and we're stuck with favoritism, then managers can take matters into their own hands and ask themselves some probing questions. Am I about to select this person because he or she is the most qualified, or is there another reason? Do I treat all my employees fairly and equitably, or do I provide opportunities for some and not for others? Do my employees think I play favorites, and if so, is there anything to their concerns? How can I more objectively and impartially make decisions about hiring, promoting and rewarding my employees?