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Blog Insight & Commentary

How To Identify and Combat Favoritism at Work

Boss playing favorites? Here’s how to identify the signs and what to do about it.

Megan Hageman
Contributor

woman talking with her hands

It's hard enough to be successful and work your way up in your career. Now imagine you do everything right and outperform all your colleagues and you are still somehow overlooked for that open position. What’s that about?!

When managers and top executives play favorites, the effects can be detrimental, not just to more deserving employees but to the entire organization. Although favoritism is quite common, the signs can be hard to identify and it can be even harder to unmask the true reason behind the unfair treatment.  

What is favoritism?

A basic definition of favoritism is when a manager or boss gives more opportunities or benefits to one employee over others for reasons other than skill and performance. Sometimes the employer’s actions are unintentional and the favoritism happens subconsciously, after all it is natural to prefer one person over another. Nepotism is a form of favoritism, for example.

Whether, employers intend to play favorites or not, it creates an uncomfortable work atmosphere. If employees feel they will not receive well-deserved promotions or opportunities in exchange for hard work, they will be discouraged from exerting maximum effort. Lack of effort combined with unqualified employees moving up within the company leads to an overall unproductive and self-destructive work environment.

If you are unsure if what you are seeing within your company is favoritism here are a couple of subtle signs.

What favoritism in the workplace looks like

  • The boss taking lunch with or hanging out with one employee outside of work

  • One employee receiving more opportunities, such as accompanying the boss to conferences, off-site client meetings, or trainings

  • The boss repeatedly excusing unproductive or distracting behavior for just one particular employee

  • The boss tending to listen to and accept suggestions only from a certain employee during team meetings

Keep in mind that it’s on the boss or manager to not play favorites. Sure, there are brown-nosers that reap the benefits of sucking up, but the recipient of the favoritism may not want the attention at all. When other employees start to catch on to their coworker’s increased opportunities and special treatment, resentment begins to rise, even if said employee did nothing to encourage the behavior.

Is favoritism legal? Can my boss get away with this?

Showing favoritism in the workplace is completely legal, unless the employer is discriminating against individuals on the grounds of a protected status, like race, age, sexual orientation, color, religion, ability, national origin, or gender. Federal laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act protect employees from discrimination like this.

It is also illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who file a charge with a government agency, file a lawsuit, or make an internal complaint. This is known as employer retaliation and more than one third of the discrimination charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the past few years include a retaliation claim.

Let’s say a new position has opened up and it’s time for your boss to promote one of their employees. After review they chooses your colleague because they went to high school together and now play in the same softball league after work. While unfair, this is technically legal (and it’s known as nepotism).

Now imagine you just found out you’re pregnant. If your boss decides to play favorites and promote your male colleague over you because of your pregnancy, that is illegal (and it's called pregnancy discrimination).

Read more: 13 Signs of a Toxic Work Environment & When It Becomes Illegal

What to do when you see favoritism at work

It is hard to know what approach to take when you find yourself in this situation. Here are some basic tips to help level the playing field:

  • Don't jump to conclusions. First, just to clarify your initial thoughts, do some research into the situation to ensure your colleague is being unjustly favored. Perhaps they are putting in extra work or performing extremely well and it is just not evident—you might not see everything that’s going on.

  • Set up a conversation with your boss to discuss your work and politely ask for the reasoning behind being overlooked for a recent opportunity. Use language such as: I was really hoping to be selected as point person for the new client project. Can you give me some specific reasons why I wasn't so I can improve for next time?

  • Talk to someone in HR. If you have had several conversations with your boss and nothing has changed, it is acceptable to speak with your HR department for further support. HR could help encourage fair treatment from your boss or place you on a different team.

  • Talk to an attorney. In extreme cases, if you feel you are being discriminated against for illegal reasons, you can potentially take legal action against your employer. But first, you should identify the illegal action and talk to the EEOC.

Read more: Gender Discrimination at Work: How to Find It & Deal with It

What to do if you’re the recipient of workplace favoritism

If your boss is playing favorites with you and you’re starting to feel the heat, there are a couple of options to try:

  • You can address the problem head-on. You might say: I notice that you consistently pick my ideas for projects and showcase my work. I feel like you do this to exclusion of others. When you exercise favoritism, it makes it hard for me to know if I'm actually good at my job and how I can improve. 
  • Let your boss know you have a lot on your plate and suggest another colleague to take over the new assignment: I’m feeling overwhelmed by the amount I have on my plate right now. Sam mentioned wanting to take on more design work like this—I’m sure she’d jump at this chance and nail it too.
  • Give your coworkers proper credit for work they completed on shared projects. If your boss is touting your accomplishments, you might say: The project couldn’t have been such a success without Nisha’s fast and excellent coding skills.

  • Question or politely refuse undeserved benefits: While I appreciate the opportunity to attend another training, I wonder if Nisha might benefit from this one more than me.

Throughout the situation it is important to remain positive and continue to work hard. Bad-mouthing your employer or slacking will not help to achieve the results you want.

Read more: Are You Contributing to an Inclusive or Exclusive Workplace?

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