Deal With Workplace Favoritism – Employee and Employer Guide

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We, as humans, live to have favorites. Even without trying, we develop biases and unique preferences. It’s one of the magical and undefinable traits of human existence. Unfortunately, we aren’t psychologists. Therefore, we will not attempt to break down the psyche and emotion behind creating preferences, but we will cover a darker side of it. Workplace favoritism is an example of treasured emotions interfering with workplace production and culture.

While having a favorite movie or flower is a harmless decision, having a favorite employee may quickly destroy a workforce and culture.

But how can you help combat workplace favoritism? How can you as an employee or employer squash the negative possibility it creates? How can you make sure that preference doesn’t become biased, crushing the morale of an entire team?

It’s a tricky line to dance around, but it is possible. Let’s get into it.

What Is Workplace Favoritism?

Before diving into the dangers and solutions of workplace favoritism, it’s important to define it fully.

Ultimately, workplace favoritism is when an employer, supervisor, or other higher-up picks a subordinate as their favorite employee. Then, the higher-up gives the employee special treatment (i.e. easier tasks, favored schedules, promotions, and other bonuses). It’s the act of picking an employee and treating them as more important than other workers on the same level of employment.

Consequently, it can be both hard to notice and hard to define. Favoritism can be misconstrued or completely unintentional. For example, if one worker is more responsible and hardworking than the other, the other employee may find themselves projecting bias upon the better worker. They may feel the other employee is getting favorited, though it’s entirely based upon work ethic.

Being hard to define makes favoritism something hard to deal with. It can quickly become a word-of-mouth affair, pitting the opinion of an employee versus the opinion of an employer. And with the supervisor or manager at hand being higher up than the employee, they can likely win out, even if bias is truly present.

If an employee claims a manager is biased without proof, the employer is likely to listen to the manager’s opinion first. That’s the unfortunate effect of employee ladders.

That’s Illegal… Right?

Technically, workplace favoritism is not illegal. One, it’s virtually impossible to prove that an employer is picking one employee over another based on outside opinion. Though it may be noticeable if you work in the office, it would be nearly impossible to show in a court of law. It’s impossible to prove opinion.

Secondly, opinions are not illegal. If a manager prefers a worker over another, no law is being broken. If it were illegal to have favorites, we would all be in jail. It’s okay and human to have a favorite coworker. It’s what they do with that favoritism that defines positivity and negativity.

What is illegal is discrimination, though.

Is it Discrimination?

Discrimination is when an employer mistreats or favors an employee based on race, age, pregnancy status, gender, or sexual orientation. If provable, discrimination in the workplace is highly illegal and can lead to serious consequences.

The problem, once again, is the difficulty in proving human opinion and emotion. Favoritism can quickly be seen as discrimination (or vice versa) despite the other not leaking over. If the employer favors employee A over B and both have racial differences, it can be seen as discrimination despite just being favoritism.

At the end of the day, it would take outright discriminatory statements, history, or other proof to determine discrimination over favoritism.

A 2019 study by GlassDoor found that  61% of American workers (between ages 18 to 34) have witnessed or been subjected to discrimination at work. A survey conducted by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business found that 92% of senior business executives have seen favoritism at play in employee promotions.

While it can be hard to determine which is truly happening, they both occur more frequently than they should.

Common Signs

There are a plethora of signs of favoritism. Sometimes you may experience only one, multiple, or none of these listed signs. At the end of the day, it boils down to gut feeling and experience.

The most common signs of favoritism are as follows:

  • Offering special privileges to some (or a single) workers. This can include extra vacation days, bonuses, or easier tasks.
  • Overlooking double standards. This can include getting one employee in trouble and allowing the favorite to do the same thing.
  • Having a relationship at work or outside. The employer spends a lot of time with the employee during work or outside of it.
  • Taking away from one employee to give to another. For example, taking a task away from a more-qualified employee to give to the favorite.
  • Providing more coaching and training with the favorite employee. Extra lenience and attention.
  • Giving the employee promotions despite not being a top candidate.

Why It Is a Problem, Though

According to research conducted by MIT Sloan School of Management, around 30 million, or one in nine, US workers experience their workplace as toxic. A study by Cornerstone concluded that troublesome employees make their coworkers 54% more likely to quit.

A toxic workplace is a quick way to lose your star employees. It’s a quick way to lose your entire workforce, forcing you to have to rebuild from the ground up. Having obvious favoritism can quickly cause a toxic workplace.

Why would an employee want to work for you if they are overlooked due to personal preference?

Here’s the thing: favoritism is pretty obvious to fellow employees. If a coworker notices that another is getting preferred, they are likely to lose motivation toward production. Why work hard if you will be overlooked for promotions and rewards?

They will also likely spread the information and opinion amongst other team members. Even if the other team members don’t feel particularly shunned by the bias, they will still stand up for their coworkers, causing an overall lack of production, positivity, and motivation.

For example, let’s say employee A works hard but notices that it’s all for not. Employee B is favored by the manager. Employee B is chosen over A for a promotion, despite A being the obvious choice. A loses productivity and motivation because they believe they are working toward nothing. Employee A then tells C and D about the favoritism. C and D notice and believe that A deserved the promotion over B. Now C and D feel the same resentment toward both B and the manager.

Confusing, but you get the gist. It’s a quick way to turn a workforce negative, even if they are all not equally affected.

How to Deal With Workplace Favoritism as an Employee

Dealing with workplace favoritism as an employee can be a tough and touchy task. Firstly, you don’t want to accuse a coworker of something that isn’t 100% true. Not only can that quickly sour your working relationship but it can get you in trouble for attempting to start drama in the workplace. You don’t want to find yourself becoming the toxic employee that others avoid through paranoia.

Secondly, it can be impossible to prove (as we’ve noted). All you have to go off of is your emotion. If you feel scorned, that’s a valid and understandable reason to act, but it can be hard to show.

Before making any of the following moves, make sure to reflect on the situation. Is the employer truly playing favoritism or are you overthinking? Can it be discrimination or overall bias? Is it negatively affecting your work and production and is it worth fighting for?

If you find that you truly feel scorned or there is an unfair advantage, don’t let it go. Work to address it in every way you can. Don’t let someone’s personal bias ruin your work life.

1. Never Be Angry With the Favored Employee

Firstly, never be angry at an employee that is being favored. It isn’t their fault that they have been chosen to be the one that receives all benefits and promotions. After all, they are probably just attempting to work hard and create a successful life for themself. We are all just trying to survive.

If the employee is truly just doing their job and acting as their normal selves, you should not project anger upon them. It is likely not their fault or intention to be chosen by the employer or supervisor.

This, of course, is a case-by-case scenario. If the employee is going out of their way to be favored or is sabotaging fellow workers to be considered the best, then there’s another problem at play. At that point, it is reasonable to harbor some form of resentment toward them.

Overall, you should never dislike or hate your coworkers, regardless of what they are doing (we understand this is easier said than done). Disliking a coworker only creates an uncomfortable and unproductive workplace for everyone involved. If you feel that you are forming your own negative bias, you are becoming an ironic form of what we are speaking against. Separate yourself from the employee and remember that it’s just a working relationship. Never let negative emotions create drama.

2. Keep Working Hard

We always hear the cliche of killing them with kindness. There is something to be said about the turning-cheek approach, regardless of the facet in which you are using it. Often, continuing to move on as if nothing is happening can be beneficial to you as a human, not just an employee.

Never let workplace favoritism affect you as a professional.
Never let your anger or frustration cause others to think you are not a good worker or professional.
You don’t want to become a toxic employee.

If you continue to strive hard, you will have to be rewarded eventually. If you continue to work with 100% proficiency and still get overlooked by supervision, there is something else at play. You can’t be denied for your efforts forever, and if you are, you need to be looking at different companies.

Combat workplace favoritism by being so great and skilled at your job that the employer can’t help but notice. As we said, it’s similar to the concept of killing them with kindness. Kill them with proficiency.

3. Be Clear

There is something to be said about stating your intention. Letting the employer know what you are working toward and looking for gets the idea implanted into their subconscious. If you follow the request up with a resume of impressive work and outcomes, they will have to adhere to your wants, regardless of their favoritism toward other employees.

For example, let’s say that you want a specific promotion and the favored employee gets it. Tell the higher-up in charge that you want the position and are working toward it. Be straightforward. Do not outright accuse them of picking the other employee over you through bias, but let them know that it is in your sights.

“The promotion that Jack received is what I am looking forward to in the future. The project that he is on is what I want to be doing. What should I look to improve to get mentioned for that role?”

Feel free to ask the manager what skills or actions you should improve on to be noticed for the promotion.

This straightforwardness not only improves your chances and communication for the role, but it lets the employer know you are informally aware of the bias. While you aren’t a James-Bond-esque spy, you are an employee that is affected by favoritism. If you let them know what you want and work toward it and the favored employee gets it (undeservedly), they know you know they know.

Get it?

4. When in Doubt, Speak Up

No one wants to be a snitch. In fact, reporting someone to a supervisor that is favored can cause distress amongst a team. It’s often seen as a last resort for those self-conscious about team appearance.

Here’s the thing: someone has to do it. Workplace favoritism is not okay, especially if it starts to leak into affecting other employees. If you feel that you (or someone else) are being wronged by favoritism, there’s nothing wrong with saying so. If the team turns on you for ‘snitching’, they aren’t a good team in the first place.

Once you have tried everything and nothing is working, tell a higher-up or HR department. It’s the right thing to do. Do not continue to be scorned by unnecessary and unneeded bias.

How to Deal With Workplace Favoritism as an Employer

“The only way I can keep clear of force is by justice. Far from being willing to execute his enemies, a real king must be willing to execute his friends.”

— T.H. White, British Writer

We must touch on the other side of the coin, too. If you are an employer, you may not notice that your supervisors or managers are performing workplace favoritism activities until it’s too late. If an employee has to come to you with the information, a sour seed has already been planted amongst the crops.

It’s not the end of the world, but it should be dealt with ASAP.

If you notice favoritism or have been alerted of it by your employees, these are a few tips you should immediately implement.

1. Squash It Delicately

As an employer or supervisor, you never want to point fingers. Dealing with trouble in the workplace is a tricky and egg-shell-based topic. You must deal with everything delicately before making significant moves. You never want to be on the wrong end of accusations.

Remember empathy before beginning any reclamation path. Speak to all the parties involved individually and never accuse anyone outright. Figure out what’s going on and try to handle things without coming off as unjust.

Obviously, this tip goes for any situation you have to handle, not just favoritism.

Ultimately, you want to find out if the situation is just a misunderstanding or unintentional. As we noted before, a lot of times favoritism can be unintentional. After letting the manager know that the problem has been brought up, they may apologize and work to avoid it going forward. As humans, we all have a subconscious tendency to pick favorites. Sometimes managers just need to be reminded that it’s happening.

All in all, get everyone’s opinion and story before moving forward. Don’t start showing bias yourself.

2. Build Workplace Culture

Building a great workplace culture is the key to stopping any issue. If you have a group of like-minded professionals that all share the same values, you will often avoid any team-related problems (like favoritism).

Like all employee-related issues, it all starts with hiring the best employees you can find. If you have a team of mature and driven professionals, you may only need to discuss the issue of favoritism. You may not need to move to any punishment or resolutions.

If you have an ongoing issue with favoritism or other negative situations, you may need to look in the mirror. Something you are doing as an employer is creating a bad workplace culture (i.e. hiring badly, not onboarding correctly, or not implementing correctional actions). If your workplace culture is solid and positive, you may never have an issue with favoritism in the first place.

We wrote an entire article about how to build a positive workplace culture here!

Improve Relationships

Along with building culture, make sure that all of the employees can get to know each other. Sometimes favoritism can come solely from the lack of time spent with another employee. Of course managers are likely to favor employees they know better.

Team-building exercises and events can help the entire staff get to know each other, potentially reducing favoritism. Even something as simple as an office party gives workers the downtime to meet with each other. It can help build a team that’s ready to face challenges and boost production!

3. Use Metrics When Making Decisions

To reduce the possibility of favoritism in promotions, use metrics systems along with employee performance when picking employees for promotions.

Maciek Kubiak, the head of people at online photo tool PhotoAiD, told HubSpot, “I use objective metrics to track my team’s performance. I judge people not through the prism of my sympathy or antipathy, but through the measurable effects of their work. This way, I’m building an effective team that achieves amazing results with no office politics getting in the way.”

At the end of the day, which metrics you put into employee performance depends entirely on the business you run. Sales numbers, conversion rates, and positive reviews can all be used to give an unbiased approach to grading employee performance. You can even come up with an employee performance scale to rate the employee without bias.

This should not take away humanity entirely, though. There is still a personal and human element to choosing which employees receive promotions. Sometimes it’s smart to choose an employee that doesn’t have the best numbers but has the skills and mindset to take on the larger role. That all depends on the employer. But adding some unbias metrics can help this process avoid favoritism.

4. Stay Positive

Speaking negatively of employees, being passive aggressive toward managers, and harsh discipline can cause a workplace that no one wants to attend. All in all, it’s important to remain positive and understanding throughout the entire process.

Regardless of the issue, do not let hiccups cause you to dislike your employees. Remember the human element of every decision we make. Take the time to hear everyone out and stay positive. Support your team through thick and thin.

There’s a place to be harsh and a place to be forgiving. It’s your decision to decide where you next actions lie, but make sure you stick to them. At the end of the day, all of your employees want (and deserve) respect and support, even if they are in the wrong. Positivity should always radiate throughout the work place, even if things are awry.

Even if you are bringing in an employee to discuss potential bias, be nice and positive. There is never a need for malice.

“The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability. When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”

—  Howard Schultz, American Businessman