What we can learn from the Jian Ghomeshi affair
It's never easy to expose yourself, especially when the exposure points to a serious short-coming, even a failure.
Take the report the CBC released this month, on how it handled the problem now known ignominiously as the Jian Ghomeshi affair.
The report concludes that CBC did less than well, in fact downright poorly, in living up to its own standards of how people should be treated at work.
Call it host culture, celebrity culture, alpha dog culture, whatever. At a more general level, it's about people who are treated preferentially because of perceived success, and that brings us to just plain favouritism.
Unlike its cousin, discrimination, favouritism hardly ever makes the news.
Every now and then some public figure, usually a politician, stands accused of playing favourites with an individual or a group of individuals, but that's about it.
Here's how Judy Nadler and Miriam Schulman of Silicon Valley's Santa Clara University explain favouritism's low profile.
"Probably the biggest dilemma presented by favouritism is that, under various other names, few people see it as a problem."
There's no question that favoritism is a bad management practice.- EmploymentLawfirm.com
The notorious American intellectual gadfly Stanley Fish certainly doesn't.
"Favoritism is Good," states the headline over one of his frequent and invariably controversial columns on the opinion page of the New York Times.
"Favoritism is not the distortion of good judgement, but the basis of good judgement."
In CBC's case, that kind of "good judgement" gave it some of the highest national radio ratings it's had in a long time — but at the expense of one star perpetrating the incontinence of his abominable behaviour on anybody he deemed not to be on his side.
In other words, fairness is a nice thought, but in real life that's all it is. An idea far too many people pay no attention to when push comes to shove, both on the giving and the receiving end.
The sucking up factor
For Nadler and Schulman, on the other hand, fairness is at the very heart of ethics, and ethics is at the very heart of civilized society.
How healthy is that heart? Nadler and Schulman quote a 2002 survey which showed that 64 per cent of federal government workers in the United States believed promotion is based on whom you know or suck up to, rather than on merit.
At CBC's radio program, Q, Ghomeshi had it made.
"There's no question that favoritism is a bad management practice," the website EmploymentLawfirm.com weighs into the debate.
"It breeds resentment, destroys employee morale, and creates disincentives for good performance."
Is it illegal? Not necessarily, the website concedes – not until legally protected areas such as race, gender, disability, and age are infringed on.
Still, research has shown that favouritism can do lasting damage. Children who feel less favoured than their siblings run a greater risk of substance abuse when they reach their teens, and of depression when they reach middle age.
EmploymentLawfirm.com makes similar observations about the damage to workplace productivity. Employees disgruntled over favouritism "spend more and more time gossiping or griping about how unfair the system is rather than doing their work."
Psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Tony Greenwald, of the Universities of Washington and California respectively, see even worse. They state that "unequal treatment in the form of doing favors for those you like causes the majority of discrimination in the U.S."
Q was the ultimate case in point. All the favours flowed towards Ghomeshi. The rest of the team, and the whole organization for that matter, just had to put up with it.
Of course, it's all bleeding-heart prattle if you see things from Stanley Fish's perspective. He doesn't just bless the double standards of favouritism, he roots for them by stating that it's "positively good to favour those on your side, members of your tribe."
Fair enough, but what is a tribe in this day and age? Ghomeshi brow-beating everybody into hopping or crawling to his whims?
Nadler and Schulman don't think so. Ethics matter, they contend. Ethics set standards, and standards create level playing fields which reach across tribal boundaries and the destructive pettiness of favouritism.
And yet, who can blame those who wonder, 'What's the big deal?'
Favoritism is not the distortion of good judgement, but the basis of good judgement.- Stanley Fish
They see favouritism every day, even practice it themselves – at home with their children, at work with their colleagues, at night on the couch in front of the TV screen while rooting for their team – in everything that goes on around them and what they've been brought up to believe in.
One day they see it as a problem, the next day they don't, the third day they welcome it, the fourth they get burned by it.
Favouritism is so much part of their lives, how can it be anything but human nature itself? Chances are that they also learn to accept that those who practice favouritism don't really give a dime whether it's ethical or not.
They're on the right track, Stanley Fish would say. Oh, no, Nadler and Schulman would counter.
Meanwhile someone like Ghomeshi rides favouritism like the wave of opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime, makes a splash with it even he can't control, takes half the place down with him, and suddenly everybody wonders, 'What happened?'