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Friends in high places

Veterinary clinics are not immune to workplace favoritism. Playing favorites with co-workers might not be illegal, but it can hurt morale and create resentment.

Friends in high places
The line between favoritism and discrimination can be somewhat blurry.
Here are a few comments heard when I asked veterinary nurses, receptionists and associate veterinarians if they had encountered favoritism at their practice:
  • “Favoritism is a way of life here.”
  • “Favoritism is an everyday thing.”
  • “I suffer daily from not being a favorite.”
What is favoritism, and is it even legal? If a practice manager gives a day off only to co-workers who like the same football team or who go to the same yoga class or who break bread once a month, the slight might be frustrating for the non-favorites. If a supervisor gives certain shifts to her good friends, it might be unfair but it’s not illegal. All it means is the practice is run like a high school, where only the popular kids get benefits. Bad management isn’t against the law.

Little Good Comes From It

Regardless of the reason, favoritism is detrimental to the workplace and productivity. If employees witness that benefits go to the “chosen ones” and not to the people who work the hardest, there is little to no incentive to work hard. The situation then creates animosity among co-workers and destroys employee enthusiasm. Favorites might do the bare minimum while other team members gossip and complain. Neither situation is productive. “Favoritism hurts morale, creates resentment and therefore increases turnover,” said Malcolm Gross, JD, an Allentown, Pennsylvania, attorney and partner at Gross McGinley. “So, in the long run, even though favoritism may seem harmless, it truly can undermine an entire practice.” Favoritism happens at most workplaces, the veterinary field included. I interviewed technicians from multiple practices. Many explained that managers or owners were made aware of the situation but chose not to address it. Sometimes, the managers were offenders themselves. I collected fascinating and sometimes painful stories. I also talked to doctors and team leaders who, not surprisingly, had a different point of view. In virtually all situations, they didn’t perceive what they did as favoritism. What they tended to do was choose to work with certain people because they knew from experience who would get the job done correctly and efficiently. Preferably the first time around. They noticed time after time that some veterinary nurses were proactive, available, eager to help and detail-oriented. “Fourteen tablets of a medication” is not the same as 13. Tramadol is not the same as trazodone. “Three views of the thorax” is not the same as two views. In their mind, it was logical to gravitate toward, preferably work with or reward certain team members since they historically helped out the most. In some cases, this behavior is not truly favoritism but a natural tendency for certain people to work together because they simply work well together. From the veterinary nurses’ standpoint, it looks like favoritism. For the doctors and managers, it’s logical behavior: They have go-to people they like, know and trust.

How to Close the Gap

Can the two points of view be reconciled so that all protagonists work as a team? If the person showing favoritism is at the top of the food chain, then veterinary nurses and receptionists can follow four steps:
  • Let your skills speak volumes by keeping a positive and upbeat attitude, regardless of the circumstances.
  • Be available as often as possible.
  • Find out and confirm what your veterinarian or supervisor needs.
  • Lastly, anticipate your doctor’s or manager’s needs.
What do I mean by anticipate?
  • If you’re a veterinary nurse, prepare the X-ray machine when you know it’s the next step. Prepare syringes, needles and glass slides when you know a fine-needle aspirate is needed. Prepare medications — tablets or injectables — so that they’re ready.
  • If you’re a receptionist, always attach a message to a chart — unless, or course, your records are paperless. Always include all the information in your message. Deliver messages in a timely fashion. If you think the client’s call requires an urgent reply, bring the matter to the doctor’s attention right away. If clients have been waiting awhile, tell them what is going on and offer to bring a cup of coffee.
Even if you are not the favorite, your skill level and preparedness can place you leaps and bounds over someone who merely shares a love for a baseball team or has a child in the same day care as your manager. That said, true favoritism should not be tolerated or enabled. If you have voiced your concerns through appropriate channels and you have exhausted all your options for being treated with respect, then a change in employment might be your last resort. Dr. Phil Zeltzman owns a traveling surgery practice. He is Fear Free certified. Learn more at www.DrPhilZeltzman.com. Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, technician AJ Debiasse contributed to this article.


The line between favoritism and discrimination can be somewhat blurry, said Allentown, Pennsylvania, attorney Malcolm Gross, JD. “For example,” he said, “a manager may know that some people work better with others, so they need to take interpersonal relationships into consideration when they design the schedule. So what may look like favoritism at first glance may in fact have a logical reason that is not readily obvious to a not-so-objective team member.” If management decisions are made based on race, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, age or religion, then illegal discrimination has occurred. For instance, if a manager promoted only one gender or gave higher pay to employees who shared a religious belief, that would be considered discrimination. “The differences between favoritism and discrimination are usually clear from a legal standpoint,” Gross said. “Favoritism is giving more Fridays off to a pet employee, no pun intended. Discrimination is defined by federal and state laws. It means not treating all employees in the same manner based on the above criteria. “Favoritism is morally wrong,” he concluded. “Discrimination is legally wrong.”


  1. At one practice, veterinarians work with preferred veterinary nurses only regardless of the workload. Yet the favorites are not the most skilled. They are actually newer and less experienced, so the favorites are exhausted and the others are bored.
  2. Elsewhere, one favorite employee never follows the protocol to request a day off. So the manager has to call others in on their day off and threatens to fire them if they don’t come in.
  3. At another clinic, two veterinary nurses were anesthetizing and intubating a high-risk patient. One received a phone call that he had to pick up his child from school. He literally hung up the phone, left the other veterinary nurse with no help to intubate — a five-second procedure — and didn’t bother to tell another nurse that he had to leave. He effectively put the patient at risk. The employee, a hunting buddy of the owner, never got in trouble. Any other employee exhibiting that behavior might have been terminated on the spot.
  4. Two bottles of medications disappeared at another practice. Then a donated bottle of medication vanished. The practice owner said publicly at a staff meeting that stealing would not be tolerated and that anyone who stole would be fired immediately. When the video surveillance footage showed that the favorite veterinary nurse was the offender, nothing was done. The employee was not disciplined.
  5. An associate veterinarian gives out chocolates ostensibly at Christmas time but only to her favorite veterinary nurses. She makes sure excluded co-workers see the gift exchange.
  6. One practice has an extremely cautious doctor who micromanages all the veterinary nurses to make sure an error is never made. The clinic protocol is to draw up drugs ahead of time and label them. The veterinarian would double-check every syringe. One day, his favorite veterinary nurse grabbed syringes off the counter, did not look at the label and switched drugs. The wrong drug was administered via the wrong route. Luckily, the error did not hurt the patient. But because the mistake was made by the doctor’s favorite, it was laughed off. Had it been done by someone else, the penalty would have been severe.
  7. An employee was friends with her manager outside of work and because of that she believed she should get preferential treatment regarding time off and calling out. When the manager refused to play favorites, the employee quit.