Favoritism in Workplace Promotions Widespread, Study Says

August 23, 2011
Highlights Need for Further Study of a Common Practice Most Say is Counterproductive
A study released today by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business indicates that connections and relationships play a significant role in employee promotions despite policies and procedures at most companies designed to lower the impact of non-objective assessment and despite general acknowledgment that such favoritism leads to bad decision making.
The study was conducted by research firm Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) and commissioned by Jonathan Gardner, an executive at PSB, as part of his studies in the Executive Master’s in Leadership program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. A summary of the findings of this research are available here.
The vast majority of senior business executives surveyed (92 percent) say they have seen favoritism at play in employee promotions, including at their own companies (84 percent). But while nearly all see favoritism as widespread, many fewer (23 percent) are willing to admit they have practiced favoritism themselves – and only 9 percent say they have used favoritism in their last promotion decision.
Favoritism thrives despite procedures that 72 percent of respondents say their companies follow to make the promotions process more objective, and general agreement by 83 percent that favoritism leads to poorer decisions. 
Survey respondents tended to define favoritism as giving preferential treatment to employees based on factors other than qualifications and performance, such as friendship or connections.
“This study confirms what many have suspected – that favoritism plays a much greater role in employee advancement than companies normally portray,” Gardner said. “I hope this study will help us acknowledge the prevalence of favoritism in employee promotions so that we can find ways to better understand the role it plays.”
The research sheds light on how common it is for managers to know in advance who they want to promote. In fact, 29 percent of respondents said their most recent promotion considered only a single candidate. When more than one candidate was considered, 56 percent said they already knew who they wanted to promote before deliberations. Not surprisingly, of that group, nearly all -- 96 percent -- report promoting the pre-selected individual. 
Leadership and Communication
When asked to state their reasons for recent promotions, most respondents cited primarily objective factors, with the top five being: “has excelled in current position; leadership potential; job-related skills; strong interpersonal skills; and history of strong performance reviews.” 
“Employees should keep in mind,” said Gardner, “that despite widespread favoritism, objective measures such as past performance, leadership potential, and job-related skills are viewed as key criteria by those in charge of promotion decisions, and it is important for young workers to focus their efforts on these factors that are well within their control.”
The study included questions on leadership that offer further guidance for employees seeking to make an impact on managers. The top five leadership qualities cited by respondents were: “good communicator; ethical; trustworthy; honest; and good listener.” 
“It’s worth emphasizing that two of the top five involve communications, which is a good reason for business schools to make courses on this topic a standard part of their curriculum,” said Lamar Reinsch, Gardner’s advisor on the survey. Reinsch, professor of management and academic director of the McDonough School of Business Executive Master’s in Leadership program, added that “this survey reminds us that favoritism remains alive and well in the executive suite—many playing fields still aren’t level.”
About the Survey
From March 8, 2011 to March 10, 2011, Penn Schoen Berland conducted 303 online interviews among senior business executives at companies in the United States with at least 1,000 employees. Interviews were conducted using email records of Senior Business Executives provided by e-Rewards, a leading global online sampling and online data collection company. E-Rewards manages a panel of over 6 million people in 37 countries, including more than 2 million business professionals in the United States, the largest such panel in North America. All respondents identified themselves as holding a title of Vice President, Managing Director, Senior or Executive Vice President, or C-Suite at an organization with more than 1,000 employees. All respondents also indicated that they have a significant amount of influence or are the final decision maker on promotion decisions for their direct reports.
About Penn Schoen Berland
Penn Schoen Berland, a unit of the WPP Group (NASDAQ: WPPGY), is a global research-based consultancy that specializes in messaging and communications strategy for blue-chip political, corporate and entertainment clients. We have over 30 years of experience in leveraging unique insights about consumer opinion to provide clients with a competitive advantage - what we call Winning Knowledge™. PSB executes polling and message testing services for Fortune 100 corporations and has helped elect more than 30 presidents and prime ministers around the world. More information is available at www.psbresearch.com.
About the Executive Master’s in Leadership Program
Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business offers a distinctive Executive Master’s in Leadership (EML) program that is designed for executives aiming to advance their leadership skills and gain a deeper understanding of management strategy. Offered on alternating weekends for 12 months, the EML program integrates practical management skills and advanced leadership theory to enable our students to effect change within their organizations. The program focuses on organizational leadership, provides a global focus through an international consulting project, and features one-on-one leadership coaching. Learn more at http://msb.georgetown.edu/executivedegree/eml.