Favoritism At Work: What Is It And Is It Illegal?

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 20, 2021
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A workplace where favoritism runs rampant creates a hostile environment that leaves many employees feeling neglected. Dealing with a supervisor who favors particular employees is frustrating and distracting at the very least. At the most, acts of favoritism might even be illegal.

What Is Favoritism in the Workplace?

Favoritism in the workplace is when a person, who’s usually in a supervisory position, displays preferences towards a single employee that are not based on their work performance or merit.

The favoring of this employee leads them to be awarded more opportunities and benefits than others in the company.

Although this rudimentary definition of favoritism sounds malicious, many managers demonstrate favoritism towards particular employees without even realizing it. People tend to be subconsciously attracted to particular personality types.

Even though this should be put to the wayside in a professional environment, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Whether or not the favoritism is intentional, it still damages the work environment and makes other employees feel undervalued.

Examples of Favoritism in the Workplace

Favoritism takes on many different forms in the workplace. Some are more inconspicuous than others. Below are some common examples of favoritism in the workplace, ranging in severity:

  1. Receiving extra attention. While receiving the majority of a manager’s attention might not seem serious, it can limit other employees’ chances to improve. A company supervisor only has so much time on their hands.

    If they’re giving it all to one person on the team, it means a lot of other employees are being neglected.

  2. Regular praising. Offering praise to an employee for a job well done is recommended to boost motivation and confidence. However, when this praise is only given to a single person on the team, it implies favoritism.

    Constructive feedback is given to every employee proportionate to their performance in a well-functioning work environment.

  3. Being given extra privileges. Employee privileges, such as a flexible schedule or personal days off, are benefits that are outlined during an employee’s onboarding process.

    When certain employees are given more privileges than others with the same responsibilities, it’s interpreted as favoritism.

  4. Excusing an employee’s poor performance. In addition to providing favorited employees with more opportunities, professional favoritism also comes in the form of pardoning poor performance due to bias.

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    When a manager excuses a team member’s shoddy work, it puts the entire company in jeopardy of falling behind.

    Additionally, employees who meet their job responsibilities quickly get annoyed when they’re making up for a favorite’s lacking performance.

  5. Unearned promotions. Promotions are hugely significant because they recognize employees for their achievements and contributions.

    When promotions are awarded to people based on favoritism instead of performance, it negatively impacts a business over time by decreasing overall employee motivation.

Reasons Favoritism Is Bad for a Professional Environment

Favoritism in managers negatively impacts a company for a variety of reasons. Below are some of the most common and detrimental:

  1. Builds animosity in other employees. Watching a single employee with an average skill level receive extra benefits and promotions while their co-workers get nothing isn’t the type of environment that builds a passionate staff.

    Employees pick up on favoritism quickly, whether it’s in the form of simple remarks or more drastic actions. A team that’s filled with people who feel frustrated or cheated isn’t going to be productive.

  2. Creates an environment without room to grow. When a person commits to a job, they’re often viewing it as a stepping stone towards career advancements down the line.

    When managers provide promotions to their favorite employees only, it limits the capacity of others. Employees who feel that their employer isn’t taking care of them or their career interests look to alternative options.

  3. Decreases morale. Nobody wants to put in their hard work and effort for a job that doesn’t recognize them because of favoritism. It decreases motivation and morale quickly because it makes employees feel like they’re not working towards anything.

  4. Increases employee turnover rates. After a while of being dissatisfied with their work environment, employees naturally seek new opportunities elsewhere. High turnover rates negatively impact a business because it takes a lot of money and time to keep filling open positions.

When Does Favoritism Become Illegal?

Favoritism is often infuriating but legal. Acts of favoritism are considered illegal if the treatment is for a specific and protected characteristic, such as:

If a manager displays favoritism, harassment, or discrimination towards employees due to one of these factors, it is illegal. However, it’s not safe to assume that just because one of these characteristics exists in the interaction, there is illegal favoritism.

For example, a manager who seems to provide more opportunities to their male employees would have to be clearly discriminating against the female associates for it to be considered illegal.

Tips for Preventing Favoritism in the Workplace

Favoritism can do a lot of damage to an otherwise healthy business. Putting forth the effort to refrain from picking favorites helps protect the company from decreases in productivity and employee satisfaction.

Below are some useful tips for avoiding favoritism in the workplace:

  1. Build a professional relationship with all employees. One of the reasons that favoritism occurs in the workplace is that managers only build a working relationship with one or a few team members.

    To steer clear of favoritism while managing a team, put in the effort to build a professional relationship with every employee. Speaking with someone for a few extra minutes might give you insight into common ground you share and the unique skills they possess.

  2. Establish a system to evaluate employee success. Creating a system to evaluate every employee’s performance is an excellent way to manage favoritism in the workplace.

    Having a set rubric for the success milestones that an employee needs to meet eliminates the possibility that people are being rewarded unfairly.

  3. Take employee feedback seriously. Employers collect constructive feedback from their employees because it shows them a different perspective. As a supervisor, your team might pick up on things you’re unaware of from your position.

    Consider employee feedback carefully and take action to remedy situations that people are uncomfortable with, like favoritism.

  4. Speak out about favoritism if it’s witnessed. Sometimes it’s another co-worker who’s the culprit of the favoritism in your business.

    When you’re positive that you’re witnessing a co-worker demonstrate favoritism towards their team, it’s best to speak to them about it. This doesn’t have to be an accusatory meeting, but just let them know what you’ve been seeing.

    In situations where a manager isn’t conscious of their favoritism, bringing it to their awareness might solve a lot of difficulties.

How to Handle Favoritism in the Workplace

Despite efforts to prevent favoritism in the workplace, it still happens. When it does, there’s a series of actions that an affected individual takes to reduce this behavior.

Consider the following steps for handling favoritism in the workplace when it arises:

  1. Examine the situation. While it’s easy to jump to assumptions about a situation that you feel slighted in, take a moment to examine the circumstance at hand.

    It’s crucial to evaluate fully before taking action because it reflects negatively on an employee if they make a huff about their boss displaying favoritism, and it ends up being unfounded.

    Do some research into what constitutes favoritism, and decide if your experience matches these examples.

    Even if you find the favoritism you’re coming across is legal, your company can still handle it and improve the circumstance.

  2. Work on your performance. It may seem ridiculous to respond to favoritism by working even harder on your work performance.

    However, being the best employee possible provides the evidence needed to strengthen a case for favoritism because it shows you’re doing everything right in your role without receiving the same opportunities for growth in return.

  3. Speak to your boss. Once the problem has persisted past the point that you’re able to ignore it, it’s time to set up a meeting with the manager whose committing the offense.

    Don’t use this discussion as a chance to attack your supervisor for displaying favoritism; instead, take the chance to gain clarity. Ask them why you didn’t receive a recent opportunity and how you can improve your performance to be considered in the future.

    Once your manager has outlined the direction for how you can receive more opportunities for advancement in the future, it provides the information needed to improve in these areas.

    Oftentimes, bringing their attention to your eagerness to take on new challenges inspires a manager enough to give you a chance. If they still display favoritism and ignore you for projects, you need to discuss the situation with a higher-up in the company.

  4. Speak with your company’s Human Resources department. When you’ve tried to work with your boss to reach a conclusion that satisfies you both, but they’re still demonstrating favoritism towards other co-workers, consider speaking to your company’s Human Resources department.

    An HR branch is responsible for handling employee affairs and acting as a neutral bridge between a company and its team.

    Speaking with a member of the HR department helps diminish a favoritism situation by speaking further with the manager in question or even transferring you to be supervised by someone else.

    An objective party, like a Human Resources representative, often has better luck with getting through to an unruly manager than an individual who works under them.

  5. Seek a new position. While heading off in search of a new job is a last resort for frustrated employees, it is an option to consider.

    It’s a short-term headache to quit your role and begin the process of finding a new job, but it might be the best alternative if you’re uncomfortable at your current company because of favoritism.

    Finding a fair supervisor at a new job is often easier than trying to change a horrible boss.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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