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.
••• South_agency / Getty Images

Have you experienced favoritism in your workplace? 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% more product than Jane, it’s not favoritism if Sue gets the promotion, praise, and special privileges. She has clearly outperformed her colleague—so that is not an example of favoritism.

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 is an example of 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 misguided on the part of their manager.

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, and no performance difference exists, the treatment and favoritism could be age-related.

Perhaps the manager doesn't want to invest in an employee he or 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 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 they receive praise from the manager. Other employees stop liking the favored one, which makes it difficult to make friends at work and to work as a part of a work team.

You can end up with an increase in turnover and a low work ethic within the department when favoritism is demonstrated by the manager.

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 that he or she is demonstrating favoritism. It may seem strange, but some managers have no idea that 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 his or 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. When favoritism is explained to a manager in terms that describe the behaviors and the impact they are having on the rest of the employees, the majority of managers will clean up their act.

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 put the following measures 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. You are more likely to hear about favoritism occurring when communicating as the manager'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.

The Bottom Line

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.