Is Favoritism in the Workplace Illegal?

How to Prevent and Combat Favoritism in Your Workplace

When the manager treats one employee with favoritism, other employees feel left out and disengaged.
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If you’ve ever worked with a manager who treated your coworker like gold while you were stuck with all of the grunt work and none of the praise, you’ve probably wondered if displaying favoritism in the workplace is illegal.

What Is Favoritism?

Favoritism in the workplace is when a person (usually a manager) demonstrates preferential treatment to one person over all of the other employees for reasons unrelated to performance. If Sue sells 50 percent more product than Jane, it’s not favoritism if Sue gets the promotion, praise, and special privileges.

She’s earned it through her high performance. But if Sue and Jane are equal performers or Jane does a better job, and Sue still gets the promotion, praise, and privileges, then that’s favoritism.

Is Favoritism Illegal?

The answer to this question is “it depends.” In the example above where Sue and Jane perform on an equal level, but Sue gets all of the perks, favoritism is legal but dumb. If the reason a manager favors one employee over the others is based on personality, social connections (is the favored employee the CEO’s niece?), or even that the favored employee knows how to suck up to the boss, then favoritism is legal.

Favoritism becomes illegal if the reason behind the preferential treatment isn’t just preference, but a protected characteristic, like race, gender, or age. If the manager treats 24-year-old Sue better than 60-year-old Jane, the treatment could be age-related.

Perhaps the manager doesn't want to invest in an employee she thinks won't learn new things. That's illegal discrimination. If the manager prefers people of her own race and therefore rewards people who share her ethnic heritage over those that don’t, that’s illegal.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether the favoritism is legal or illegal. If Jane and Sue are different races, and Sue shares the same race with the boss, is it illegal discrimination, or is it based on personality alone? If the boss shows no signs of illegal discrimination otherwise, you probably have to chalk it up to legal favoritism.

What Happens in a Department With Favoritism?

Nothing good happens when a manager shows favoritism towards an employee. The non-favored employees begin to feel that their accomplishments are not recognized. They get discouraged at the lack of correlation between hard work and success.

Gradually, people start to disengage from their work. They know that the favored employee will continue to be rewarded regardless of what they do, so why should they try? Sometimes, employees will try to sabotage the favorite, which can reinforce the manager’s position that this person is special—otherwise, why would everyone else be jealous?

But it isn’t always sunshine and roses for the favored employee either. While some favored employees obviously relish their privileged spot, others begin to feel uncomfortable. They know that they aren’t the best, yet receive the praise. Other employees stop liking the favored one, which makes it difficult to make friends at work.

You can end up with increased turnover and a low work ethic within the department.

How Do You Combat Favoritism?

Dealing with favoritism is definitely a role for the Human Resources department or senior management. The first step is making the manager aware of the favoritism. It may seem strange, but some managers clearly have no idea they favor one employee over another.

In cases where the boss and the employee are good friends or have personalities that click, the boss may not see her favoritism as unreasonable. Sometimes, just bringing it to the manager’s attention can solve the problem. Once aware, the manager can work to treat employees more fairly.

If that doesn’t work, help the manager implement metrics for measuring employee performance, rather than trusting their gut feelings about employee performance. Then work with the manager to go over those metrics on a regular basis.

If that doesn’t stop the problem, you may have to move either the manager or the favorite to a different group, or in a really bad situation, terminate the manager.

How Do You Prevent Favoritism?

Even great managers can fall prey to favoritism because humans just naturally like some people more than others. So have the following things in place to help stop favoritism in your workplace.

  • Discourage friendships between levels. Just like your policy against dating people in your direct reporting line, you should prohibit managers from engaging in outside activities with their direct reports. You need managers, not friends.
  • Establish a metric based performance appraisal system. It’s easier to see who the top performer is if you know what you’re looking at in terms of excellent performance.
  • Encourage occasional skip-level meetings so that your employees have the opportunity to meet with the boss's boss.
  • Call it out when you see favoritism occurring. If you notice that Heidi often eats lunch with her direct report, Jane, talk to her about it. Make sure that she’s eating lunch one on one with her other direct reports as well or have her stop the practice before it grows.

Favoritism may not be illegal, except under certain circumstances, but it is certainly detrimental to a productive and happy work environment.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.