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Does your boss play favourites? That may be a good thing

What's your ideal workplace – one in which everyone is treated equally? Sorry, a new study out of the University of British Columbia's business school has found that bosses should go right ahead and pick favourites.

"Conventional wisdom tells us that we should treat everyone the same to create a collegial and productive work atmosphere," Karl Aquino, who co-authored the study to be published in the Journal of Business Ethics, said in a release. "But our research shows this can be a disincentive for workers who would otherwise go above and beyond on behalf of the team with a little bit of extra attention."

Aquino points out that this practice has cultural connotations. The "working culture in the United States leans toward showing preferential treatment to star employees, while Canadian, Northern European and most Asian cultures take a more egalitarian approach."

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The tricky part, of course, is how to juice the performance of a favourite employee while not alienating the non-favourite worker sitting next to him or her.

"Bosses are in a tricky position," Aquino says. "There's a risk that treating some employees better than the rest can turn others off. The key is to find the right balance – treat everyone reasonably well, but treat those whose work counts most or who have been most productive just a little bit better."

His research suggests this is possible. In one online experiment, 357 workers were asked to assess how much preferential treatment they received. They were also asked to nominate a colleague to participate in another survey to report on how the employee behaved.

Not surprisingly, people who knew they had received preferential treatment "reported feeling a greater sense of self-worth in their jobs." But their colleagues' assessment was also favourable: "that they behaved less anti-socially and more productively at work."

Another experiment checked to see if favourite employees were more likely to volunteer for a task that would benefit the group and found that they were more willing to help out that those who were treated well, but not given preferential treatment.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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