Handling Favoritism at Work

Only a positive approach has any chance of success.

By + More

Most people have seen—and perhaps been on the wrong end of—blatant favoritism at some point in their careers. Maybe a new leader comes in from the outside and brings along an old team, pushing perfectly good employees into obsolescence. Or maybe you land in a job where your manager turns to a couple of go-to people for every decent project, leaving the rest of an able staff underutilized and disillusioned.

How do you keep your career humming along while you're stuck in the shadow of the boss's pet?

You start out by deciding that you will be the professional and polished one in this complex relationship, says Damian Birkel, founder of the nonprofit Professionals in Transition in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a veteran of the corporate trenches. Here are six ways to do just that:

1. Don't try to shoot down the favorite, no matter how tempting it might be to correct him in meetings or point out to the boss when he's way underqualified for that project you wanted, Birkel advises. At best, you're picking on the boss's buddy; at worst, you're questioning the boss's judgment about people. Neither one is going to gain you any ground.

2. Sit down with that boss as soon as possible and agree to a clear job description for you, Birkel says. To make the boss's job easier, have one at the ready for him or her to give feedback on.

3. Agree on some goals for you to accomplish over the next quarter or six months or year (or a combination of time frames). Make sure at least a few of them can be measured objectively—hitting sales or profit or cost-cutting targets, landing certain clients, or getting trained in particular new skills.

Hitting these goals gives you material you can use should you need to campaign for a promotion, project, or raise you want that you believe the boss is inclined to hand to one of the in-crowd. (For more on raises, click here.) It also gives you the means with which to defend yourself should one of the inner circle try to undermine you someday (if, say, he really wants that same promotion, project, or raise).

4. Find a champion who's at the same or higher level than your fickle manager and who can talk you up and suggest you for that plum assignment or title you want. If other people in the organization think highly of you, then it makes your boss look good to put you to good use in a visible way.

5. Get involved in the company beyond your immediate group by joining corporate committees or employee groups or lending your experience to colleagues in other departments when they ask for it. This will help you find that champion you need, boost your credibility beyond your boss's purview, and maybe lead to new opportunities with a better boss.

6. Buddy up to the boss where you can (taking care to keep your self-respect in the process). If you're at all interested in his or her favorite sport or hobby, give it a try so that you have something other than work to talk about when you find yourself sharing an elevator with the boss.

And when that boss does occasionally extend an invitation to lunch or drinks or Saturday golf to colleagues beyond a little clique, by all means, go! It's an opportunity to help the boss get to know you and see possibilities beyond the usual safe fallback people. (For more on schmoozing the boss, click here).

Of course, despite your best efforts, your career progress could slow down or flat-out stall during this manager's tenure. If you can't live with that, even for a short spell, then polish up your résumé and start looking for a new job, inside your company or elsewhere. (For more on when to leave a job, click here).

But if you do decide to sit tight and bide your time, take heart. "It's not a question of if but when that manager will be moved along or pushed out in the next reshuffling," Birkel says. "Then those favorites are back on equal footing with everyone else." If they can't settle in and thrive on their merits, they'll either follow their benefactor yet again or move on in some other way.