MSPB report on perceived favoritism

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  • #181181

    Mark Hammer

    The Office of Policy and Evaluation of the MSPB has released a new report, “Preserving the Integrity of the Federal Merit Systems: Understanding and Addressing Perceptions of Favoritism“. This report is available for download in PDF on the “Browse Studies” page of our website

    MSPB Recommends Addressing Employee Perceptions of Favoritism

    and Ensuring Merit-Based Decisions

    A new report from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), Preserving the Integrity of the Federal Merit Systems: Understanding and Addressing Perceptions of Favoritism reinforces the need for Federal agencies to understand and address employee perceptions of personal favoritism. Favoritism—granting an advantage to an employee or applicant based on personal feelings or relationships, rather than merit-based criteria—is contrary to statutory merit system principles that require Federal agencies protect employees against personal favoritism, hire solely on the basis of relative ability, and base rewards and retention on job performance.

    Results of the Federal Merit Systems Survey conducted for this study reflect continuing concern among Federal employees that personnel decisions, from day-to-day work assignments to selections for promotion, are affected by favoritism. Notably, 28 percent of employees indicated that their own supervisor had engaged in favoritism within the past two years, and 53 percent of employees believed that favoritism had influenced the decisions of other supervisors in their organization.

    MSPB’s report discusses three different reasons for perceptions of favoritism: intentional favoritism, unintentional favoritism, and employee misperceptions of a reasonable, merit-based decision. Federal agencies should address all of these reasons, because employee perceptions of favoritism can seriously undermine employee morale and productivity, regardless of their cause. “Avoiding the fact and appearance of favoritism is especially important in today’s environment, as personnel decisions, from hiring to recognition, receive heightened scrutiny,” explains Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann. “Supervisors must take special care to base their decisions on agency needs and merit-based criteria, rather than personal relationships or personal preferences. For their part, employees should seek information on the factors that supervisors consider when allocating opportunities and awards, and request and act on developmental feedback so they are well-positioned to compete and succeed on their merits.” The report outlines steps that Federal agency leaders and supervisors can take to ensure that decisions are merit-based and untainted by personal favoritism and discusses what Federal employees can do to help them successfully compete for advancement and recognition in a merit system.

  • #181191


    Great! Thanks much. We have heard a lot from the EEOC regarding discrimination complaints, but not as much from the MSPB, who handles the big (14+ days suspension, wrongful termination) cases for the feds. The outstanding question for me is what recourse does a federal employee have given the current gap in laws regarding favoritism for reasons other than age, race, religion, etc. and what can employees do if they are bullied for other reasons? Unions can help, but not every federal employee is unionized.

  • #181189

    Terrence Hill

    Thanks for the link to this MSPB study. MSPB needs to advertise their studies a little better.

    Favoritism is often insidious and a real morale killer in organizations. The problem is that it is often suble and unconscious on the part of leaders. Because it is often hard to prove, and largely based on perception, employees are often hestitant to raise this issue, which may even make the situation worse.

    Favoritism manifests itself in decisions regarding training, travel, awards, telework, promotions, assignments, and even the amount of facetime with leaders. It leaves those out of favor feeling resentful. It erodes trust and engagement.

    One way to combat favoritism is to provide a method for employees to evaluate leaders. This has been tried, but often backfires because leaders are in denial.

  • #181187

    Mark Hammer

    As the report notes, one needs to distinguish between actual favoritism (which clearly exists) and perceived favoritism. Every year I read thousands of survey comments about staffing, and I come across a great many in which a staffing action has been rather opaque to a candidate, and in the absence of clarity they are quick to conclude that favoritism played a central role.

    But yeah, you are bang on in noting the impact of accurately and inaccurately perceived favoritism on trust and engagement.

  • #181185

    David B. Grinberg

    Awesome discussion, Mark. There’s a good article about the report in

    Some other interesting findings, as the article points out:

    • “Favoritism manifested itself in many ways, MSPB found, though 27 percent of employees said they witnessed it through “social interactions,” making it the most common form.”

    • “More than 20 percent of feds said they saw favoritism in each of the following categories: desirable work assignments, awards, performance ratings, promotion and acting supervisor opportunities.”

    • “Just 2 percent of respondents told MSPB personal relationships should play a role in promotion decisions, though 40 percent thought they did in practice.”

    • “On the other end of the spectrum, an overwhelming 98 percent of federal workers said experience and competence should be used in deciding who to promote, but only 58 percent thought those factors were actually considered.”

    While I haven’t yet read the full report, it might be interesting to discern if favoritism is more prevalent among political appointees in management positions compared to career managers and supervisors.

    Regardless, favoritism definitely occurs and should be further addressed to get to the root causes and proactively prevent it through more education, training, outreach and communication.

    Lastly, employees who complain about favoritism may find themselves being targeted for retaliation by the alleged perpetrators. Retaliation is unlawful even if the initial allegations lack merit.

    This is something supervisors and managers need to remember before having knee-jerk retaliatory reactions against employees who exercise their statutory rights by speaking out against favoritism (whether real or perceived) and/or formally complaining about it.

    Any thoughts on this?

  • #181183

    Earl Rice

    As I started reading through the report, the first thing that I picked up on was statements about not holding management officials to the standards of the Merit Principles. Likewise, there was a common theme about not holding management officials to the required standards of work performance. And last, and this is just getting into the study, there are no consequences if a management official is found to have violated merit principles. And, the workers (also HR staff), be it those receiving favoritism or those not receiving favoritism have no confidence in their management to make personnel type decisions in an unbiased and truly systematic merit based way. And I have to add from my own experiences in HR, I have seen this countless times, over and over. Knowing that the decision of who would be selected for either appointment or promotion had already been made before the announcement is even published.

    Figure 2 in the report is the most damming. Over half believe that other supervisors engage in favoritisms rather than merit based principles, and over a quarter of HR people think they do. The figures for nepotism are lower, but nepotism is considered a serious offence with serious penalties that can be enforced. Now whether this is lower because of the penalties, or if this is lower because management officials just hide it better would be interesting to discern, though I am sure this was not one of the questions asked.

    Figure 8 is even more damming that Figure 2. 36% of employees believe pre-selection most of the time, 32% believe poorer but well-connected applicants are selected most of the time, 32% believe that vacancy announcements are designed to favor (30% say tailored) to advance a particular candidate. So, around 1/3d of employees think that other than merit principles are used in the selection process most of the time (this doesn’t even go into part of the time and some of the time).

    I have got to page 36 in the report, but it is just reiterating the same theme over and over. Roughly a third of the employees surveyed, think that non-merit principles are used in advancements, either directly or indirectly. And we wonder why morale is low this year than last year. And, this survey was completed before furloughs, government shutdowns, etc. So that is even factored in. I would like to see this survey done again this next summer (after the next series of budget cuts occur) and see the results them, and also throw some satisfaction elements into it also. I would also like to see a break down by agency (along the lines of best and worse places for promotion).

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