Survey Finds Favoritism Trumps Objectivity in Promotions

You always suspected you didn’t get that promotion because the boss played favorites. Now there’s evidence you’re right.

The majority of bosses in a new study admit they knew who they wanted to promote before the formal process got underway.

Published by Georgetown University, the study by Jonathan Gardner, COO and senior managing director of Penn, Schoen, & Berland Associates, found 56 percent of large company (with more than 1,000 employees) executives with more than one candidate for a promotion already had a favorite. After going through the evaluation process, 96 percent of those managers with a favorite gave them the job. Twenty-nine percent of the managers had only one candidate.

No wonder, then, that 78 percent of managers said their promotion decision was easy. And no wonder, too, that 92 percent say favoritism exists in most large organizations.

Remarkably, though three-quarters of the survey participants say they have personally witnessed favoritism where they work, only 23 percent own up to playing favorites themselves.

What is this favoritism? Gardner, the study’s author, defines it as: “Preferential treatment of an employee for assignments, credit, opinion, influence, or advancement on the basis of factors that do not directly relate to a person’s ability to perform his or her job function, such as background, ideology, or gut instincts.”

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Despite knowing about favoritism in their organization or having practiced it themselves, 83 percent of the senior executives in the survey said it leads to poorer promotion decisions.

If you find this all has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it, consider that by a large measure the executives said job performance, leadership potential, job skills, and similar work-related measures were among the most important factors influencing their promotion decision.

The study goes on to detail what the executives considered important traits in a leader. Being a good communicator and ethical came out on top.

John Zappe is the editor of and a contributing editor of John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.


5 Comments on “Survey Finds Favoritism Trumps Objectivity in Promotions

  1. It will be hard for some to accept this but …. promotions are a part of a flawed evaluation system where there almost never is a comparison of two or more apples to apples. Bottomline – it’s highly unlikely people face the exact same circumstances and deliver the exact same results so the evalator(s) impartiality plays a role. Ironically, many studies of people who receive promotion often think the process is fair.

    What’s the fix? Most likely it’s not only communicating that’s important – it’s being seen as a fair and objective evaluator before promotions are granted.

    I have worked for a handful of excellent “bosses” and never thought to question their promotion decisions or feel like they went undeservingly to “favorites” so long as I could clearly see favorites performing competitively and that the evaluator had a reputation for being fair.

    Favoritism likely exists anywhere there are people who don’t all feel equally connected to the decision-makers. I’d interpret the results from this survey to mean that no one should rely on performance results alone to get ahead. Promotions involve taking risks on someone’s potential, and it’s really not surprising that people take risks with “favorites” that are more well known than others.

  2. Interesting article but nothing shocking other than the fact that Gardner’s analysis solidifies something we already all knew to be true.

  3. In today’s workplace environment it is imperative that someone who is looking for a promotion must be proactive in that process. The first step is making sure all skills and abilities are current to meet job demands. Two, this person must have good communication skills as well as inter-personal skills, and do they demonstrate a can-do approach to problem solving through team interaction. Letting their ‘boss’ know what their goals are is critical, and it should match a clearly defined performance management plan that both parties agree upon (in advance). The person should be a results oriented individual. Bottom line…find a job that supports this if your are not in one.

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