A Boss Who Plays Favorites

When your supervisor can see the merits of only one person in the division, and it's not you, options are limited, writes C.K. Gunsalus.

February 4, 2011

Dear Survival Guide:

I have a great job that pays well and has good benefits. The work is challenging and interesting and I like the people I work with. Even the boss is good to work for, except for the effects of his favoritism. There are not good options for other jobs because my college is the main employer in the region and my spouse has a job he loves here. My work is specialized enough that mobility within the college is limited. So, at least so long as my family and I benefit from me having a job, I feel stuck. My evaluations have been stellar.

Yet in a year when we have been told we have to pull together through this tough economic time (no raises and potential pay cuts on the horizon), my boss just created a new position (with no change in duties that any of us can see) and promoted into it one of the newest members of our office. It’s clear that the boss is comfortable with and identifies with New Guy; he’s always more interested in New Guy’s opinion than anyone else’s and seems to have more in-jokes with him, etc.

New Guy is a good worker and he contributes to the office, but not more than any of us who have been here longer and have bigger responsibilities. And what does it say that this has been done in a year when there are no raises for anyone and even layoffs? I’ve sought realistic and candid feedback from my boss and from mentors who know my work. While there are always ways to improve, I’m not hearing about problems or deficits in my work. New Guy’s big promotion and raise are eating away at many of us. When several of us talked to the boss (separately) asking if there was a message about our work in the promotion or things we needed to do better, his response to each was, “This is the way it is and while we’d be sorry to lose you, anyone who doesn’t like it is always free to leave.” Do we have to resign ourselves to standing in line behind New Guy all the time? Help?

--Second Fiddle


Dear Second Fiddle:

This is a tough one. You covered a lot of the ground I would normally have asked about, following the cardinal rule that the only thing over which you have total control is your own conduct.

You have been introspective about your own contributions to the situation, and gone the next step to seek advice from those in a position to point out things you might have overlooked yourself. Further, though it’s always hard to get a real read on others in a work group, it sounds like there are others who perceive things the same way you do. You’ve already had the conversation with the boss. Beyond that, you’ve assessed options for moving yourself, and anyway, you otherwise like the work.

Obviously, I don’t know what’s going on in your office, and it sounds like you are perplexed as well. One possible explanation is that your otherwise good boss is not a good manager of people and truly doesn’t understand the effect of the action on the overall office dynamic -- or, potentially worse, care about it if he does grasp it.

Another possible explanation is that New Guy is simply valuable in some dimension/s that you cannot see or appreciate. This can range all the way from aspects of his job that are not otherwise visible to you, to his having a powerful patron pushing his advancement of whom you are unaware.

Here is a question worth pondering as you try to chart a constructive forward path: How long is your boss likely to be there? If there’s a reasonable chance he’s headed to bigger and better, or just different, things in the near term (say, a year or two), then your best choice might be to focus on the quality of your work and assuring that your file reflects your accomplishments and evaluations, as well as to assure that your internal constituents will speak well of you when the changing of the guard occurs. In other words, shoulder to the grindstone, with attention to the normal good-career-management steps a savvy worker should employ.

If it is more likely that he will be there longer than that, then you have some harder choices to make. As baseline in all of these choices, keep up the quality of your work. You likely know this, but stay on good terms with New Guy, because all indications are that he’s a major power player in your office and, on this trajectory, your boss may think he’s grooming his successor. If that thought is completely odious to you, then you need to sharpen your focus on other options, however complicated that might be, and always bearing in mind that the future is hard to predict, even for the bosses.

You asked if you and your colleagues would have to resign yourselves to always standing in line behind New Guy. As much as it’s not that fun to be the bearer of bad news, the answer is, "Maybe." On the other hand, the unusual action that was taken to create a new position into which to promote New Guy (never forgetting the big raise) also suggests that the rules are not as fixed as you might have been assuming.

Stay alert for opportunities where your advancement might be possible in ways that aren’t necessarily in competition with New Guy but that would still be satisfying to you. Create small openings where you can be visible as valuable to people beyond your boss. He seems to be a little myopic about the consequences of his actions on the loyalty of the people around him, and at the same time, he’s sent a message that you should heed. Explore ways that you can be more active in your specialty or profession outside your office and college. Pay attention to networking and the people around you to be as visible as possible outside your office; one never knows when someone else might see and appreciate you.

At the same time, practice good boss management. Something about what you’ve been doing, for whatever reason, isn’t working such that you were a factor in the recent personnel decisions of your boss. Go back to your introspection and re-consult your mentor/s. What can you change in how you interact with your boss that might alter his calculus? It’s possible there’s nothing you can do; it might well be what you first identified, which is that he’s simply more comfortable with New Guy than with others in the office. This could be a geographical, similarity, interests, personality or even gender/race thing. You probably cannot change any of those about yourself. Still, keep in mind that it could be none of those: there could be something about New Guy’s work/interactions that make him particularly valuable.

What you do get to change here is your attitude and how much it eats at you. You need not try to make yourself happy about this situation, as it sounds distinctly unpleasant. What you should do is try to come to some mental equilibrium and not obsess about it, or let it be costly to you in terms of stomach lining, peace of mind, sleep or the quality of your interactions with your family and friends. Find a compartment in your brain and shove as much of the negative emotion about this situation in there as possible. Take it out to reflect and fulminate only when it’s safe professionally and doing so will not leave you worse than when you started personally. It’s fine to call this compartment “Life Can Be Really Unfair.”

Meanwhile, focus on what you can change, and take care of yourself. I wouldn’t call this resigning yourself to this situation, so much as changing your focus and your attitude. And stay watchful for openings that will make things better for you.


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