Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.
By Alison Green / Ask a Manager
March 9, 2016

Q: My boss clearly favors me over other members of the team, and I benefit from great opportunities as a result. His behavior has created a morale problem, though, and I’m bearing the brunt of it – people are making grumpy comments about how they aren’t getting the same opportunities or the level of face time that I am. Any advice on how to handle this?

I’ve encouraged my coworkers to speak up about the projects they find interesting, but my boss won’t assign them tasks beyond the most basic, boring things. I’ve tried to directly talk to him about the issue, pointing out the morale problems and how he might positively impact things by allowing others to do cool stuff, too, but he just dismisses it – we don’t have a morale problem according to him.

I don’t want to hide my own light under a bushel, but I also don’t want to be the office pariah. Plus, it’s becoming harder to get work done as people grow more and more disengaged.

A: Do you know what’s at the root of the favoritism? Is it just about personally liking you better, or is it about difference in work quality?

If it’s the latter, well … as a general rule, treating great employees differently makes sense. Good managers should give their highest performers different treatment — by definition, they’re capable of doing more and doing it better, so it makes sense to assign work accordingly, and it’s also particular important to invest in retaining them and keeping them challenged. And if your work quality is substantially different than your coworkers, it might not make sense to give them the opportunities you’re getting because their work (or time management, work ethic, or initiative) isn’t at a level that would allow them to complete the projects successfully.

If that’s the case, it would be better for your boss to be transparent about it with people — “I’m asking Jane to do X because she accomplished Y on the Z project” or “I’m asking Jane to do X because she’s always finished with Y and Z early” or whatever it is. If he’s not currently doing this, explain why it’s causing problems and ask him to be clearer with people. (In fact, transparency around this might eventually mean formalizing it by giving you a different title and job description, which might help things.)

But if you’re confident that your boss’s preferential treatment is based on something like just personally liking you and has nothing to do with differences in work quality, then that’s different. If that’s the case, I’d say to talk to him about the problem again. Since he apparently doesn’t believe there’s a morale problem, don’t focus on that element; instead, focus on the fact that it’s causing problems for you in your relationships with others and putting you in a position where you’re surrounded by resentful colleagues.

In addition, you might be able to use the fact that he likes you to try to elevate his opinion of others too — share positive comments about their work, speak up about any contributions that other people have made to your projects, suggest that Lucinda might be great for project X, and so forth. In fact, on that last one, you might even be pretty directive about it — like if your boss asks you to take on a new project, you could say, “It’s a lot of work, so I’d like to pull Lucinda in on it too unless you object.”

Beyond that, I would just focus on being warm, helpful, and scrupulously fair in your dealings with your coworkers. They might still resent the favoritism, but the more you can show that you’re not seeking it out or taking advantage of it, the better.

Q: How do you recommend turning down people when they “ask” you to participate in work activities (meetings, focus groups, events, etc.) that are after work and not technically part of your responsibilities?

This seems to happen to me semi-often lately, where I’ll be “invited” to join a meeting or focus group or event outside of work by someone who is not my boss, but usually the head of another department. Instead of asking this in a way that is more like “would you be interested in this / would you want to come to this,” it’s always phrased more like “this is happening, will we see you there?” If it were my boss suggesting networking things or growth opportunities, I would totally say yes, but it’s not my boss at all, just someone in another department who wants my input.

A: “Sorry, I can’t make it” is perfectly reasonable. Some variations, especially to guard against the assumption that you’ll come if it ends up rescheduled for a different date, are “I’m swamped right now, so won’t be able to join you” and “I’ve got a bunch of after-work commitments right now so won’t be there.” But really, “can’t make it” is fine on its own.

People — or at least, halfway reasonable people — understand that people have lives outside of work, and that if you schedule something for an evening or weekend, they might not be able to attend.

This isn’t even your boss asking, so the level of obligation you have to try to make it work is pretty low. I’d just say no to stuff you don’t want to attend, assume it’s fine, and not give it another thought.

The exception to that is if your job actually does require you to attend these things, but I assume that if it did, you wouldn’t be asking the question. If you’re at all unsure about that, though, you could simply ask your boss: “Hey, Jane and Fergus regularly invite me to attend after-hours events like X and Y. It often doesn’t work with my schedule and I say no, but I wanted to double check with you to make sure you don’t want me rescheduling things to be able to join them.”

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.

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