Favoritism at Work: The Costs and Cures

It‘s an open secret in many organizations – some employees seem to operate under a different set of rules than others. They get the best assignments, the most time and attention from leaders, more leeway with deadlines or policies. In short, they‘re the boss‘s favorites. And it can wreak havoc on the rest of the team.

Favoritism in the workplace is more than just an annoyance. It‘s a significant barrier to an engaged, productive, and equitable culture. A recent SHRM survey found that 84% of U.S. workers say they‘ve seen evidence of favoritism at their job. And it takes a real toll – people who perceive unfair treatment are significantly less engaged and more likely to quit.

In this article, we‘ll explore the various faces of favoritism at work, the damage it can do, and research-backed strategies for employees and leaders to tackle it head-on. The goal is to ensure your organization is a place where everyone can thrive and do their best work.

What Does Favoritism Look Like?

Favoritism comes in many flavors, some more overt than others. A few of the most common forms:

  • Plum assignments: The same employees are consistently given high-profile projects, clients, or tasks, while others are relegated to less impactful or interesting work.

  • Uneven standards: Favored employees are given a pass for subpar work, missed deadlines, or policy violations, while others are held to strict account.

  • Inequitable access: Some employees get extensive face-time with leaders, mentoring, professional development, or exposure to senior management. Others are left out.

  • Fast-tracking: Preferred employees are promoted quickly without meeting normal criteria like tenure or consistent high performance. It can feel like an "inside track."

  • Social bonds: A manager spends significant social time with some team members outside of work but not others – think happy hours, golfing, etc.

While some unevenness in leader-employee relationships is normal, favoritism becomes a problem when it is significant, persistent, and not based on job-relevant factors. If a reasonable person would look at the treatment and think it unfairly singles out certain employees, it‘s likely crossed a line.

The High Price of Playing Favorites

The harms of favoritism are both broad and deep. At an individual level, it can leave people who are on the outs feeling resentful, demotivated, and disengaged. Gallup finds that globally, only 20% of employees are engaged at work – and unfair treatment is a major culprit.

Those individual impacts roll up to massive organizational costs. A case study by a UK legal firm found that workplace favoritism costs the economy over £4 billion per year in lost productivity. In the U.S., replacing an employee costs 50-60% of their annual salary. High turnover due to favoritism adds up fast.

Favoritism also contributes to much broader equity gaps. It‘s often intertwined with – and perpetuates – biases around gender, race, age, and other characteristics. Even if not consciously discriminatory, playing favorites tends to reinforce the status quo of who advances vs. doesn‘t.

Leaders should care about favoritism from an ethical standpoint. But even putting ethics aside, the bottom-line case is clear. Allowing favoritism to fester is simply bad for business.

When Favoritism Equals Discrimination

An important distinction is the line between legal favoritism and illegal discrimination. In the U.S., it‘s not technically against the law for a manager to prefer some employees over others. However, it crosses into illegal territory if that favoritism is based on protected characteristics like:

  • Race or color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy)
  • Age (40 or older)
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

For example, if a manager consistently favors younger workers over older, that could be illegal age discrimination. Or if men tend to get better treatment than women, it may violate gender equity laws.

The tricky part is that while certain patterns of favoritism can enable illegal discrimination, they can be hard to prove. Typically there must be clear evidence showing favored treatment is based on a protected class. The EEOC provides guidance on when favoritism becomes discriminatory.

Responding to Favoritism as an Employee

If you‘re an employee dealing with favoritism aimed at others, it can be a frustrating experience. However, how you respond can make a big difference. A few key steps:

  1. Don‘t assume the worst: Resist jumping to conclusions about favoritism right away. Consider if there may be reasonable factors, like individuals‘ unique skills or experience, driving differential treatment. Minor, occasional special treatment likely isn‘t worth sweating.

  2. Focus on yourself: Rather than fixating on a co-worker‘s favoritism, double down on your own career development. Proactively seek out stretch projects, mentoring, and skill-building. Keep a record of your accomplishments and make sure your contributions are visible.

  3. Expand your network: Feeling out of favor with your direct manager? Concentrate on building relationships with a wide array of leaders and peers across the organization. Establish multiple champions who can vouch for your work.

  4. Address it directly: If favoritism is significant, persistent, and impacting your work, request a meeting with your manager. Come prepared with specific examples of unfair treatment (not just a list of complaints). Keep the conversation professional and forward-looking.

For example: "I noticed that John has been given the lead on the last three client projects, while I haven‘t had a chance to take on that role. My goal is to develop my skills in this area. Can we discuss a plan for me to take on more responsibility?"

  1. Escalate when necessary: If discussing with your manager doesn‘t resolve it, consider looping in their boss or your HR business partner. This is especially advisable if you have evidence the favoritism may be discriminatory. Report it through the proper internal channels.

  2. Know when to walk: In some cases, a manager may be so biased that your prospects for growth are permanently limited. If you‘ve exhausted options for addressing favoritism internally, it may be time to explore other roles. You deserve to work where you‘ll be valued and given equitable opportunities.

A Manager‘s Guide to Playing Fair

As a people leader, you play an integral role in building an equitable and inclusive team culture. Some ways to make sure you‘re not falling into the favoritism trap:

  • Get clear on what it looks like: Educate yourself on the various forms workplace favoritism can take. Pay attention to patterns in your own behavior and tendencies.

  • Check your biases: We all have unconscious biases that can lead us to unjustly favor certain people. These biases often map to social identities like race and gender. Commit to ongoing reflection on how your background and identity may skew your judgment and take steps to manage it.

  • Set objective standards: Establish clear, measurable criteria for things like promotions, compensation changes, and high-visibility assignments. Communicate them transparently. Making decisions based on consistent standards vs. subjective opinions goes a long way.

  • Spread the love: Make sure you‘re investing in relationships with all your team members, not an anointed few. Give everyone equitable access to your time, advice, and development opportunities. Model inclusive behaviors like equal airtime in meetings.

  • Welcome challengers: Proactively ask for feedback on your own potential biases. When employees raise concerns about favoritism, take them seriously. Treat it as a learning opportunity vs. getting defensive.

  • Empower others: You shouldn‘t be the sole decision-maker on your team. Involve other leaders and stakeholders in evaluating employees‘ performance and potential. Bring in multiple perspectives to selection and promotion processes.

  • Create safety: Foster an environment where employees feel psychologically safe calling out problems like favoritism. Reiterate that you welcome concerns and handle complaints confidentially. Most importantly, follow up with meaningful corrective action.

An Organizational Game Plan

While individuals play a critical role, organizations must also take favoritism seriously at a systemic level. Larger initiatives include:

  • Making it a leadership priority: Senior executives should name favoritism as a barrier to equity and inclusion and commit to rooting it out. Clearly communicate that it won‘t be tolerated.

  • Training at scale: Provide all people leaders training on identifying and managing favoritism and bias. Make it an expectation, not a nice-to-have. Emphasize specific behaviors to model and watch out for.

  • Equity audits: Regularly analyze people metrics like recruiting, pay, promotions, and attrition, cut by demographics. Look for red flags signaling potential favoritism. Be transparent about results.

  • Inclusive career support: Ensure mentoring, sponsorship, high-profile opportunities, and other career accelerators are equally available to all. Track participation and proactively tap a diverse array of rising stars.

  • Consistent accountability: Treat substantiated complaints with real consequences, regardless of level. A senior leader who plays favorites should be held to the same standards as a new supervisor. Consider favoritism a performance and values issue.

Playing Favorites Doesn‘t Pay

At the end of the day, allowing favoritism to run rampant is a losing proposition for all. It leaves a trail of demoralized employees and squandered potential. And the hard costs – turnover, lawsuits, lackluster productivity – are eye-watering.

On the other hand, organizations that create truly equitable environments reap a host of benefits. Research shows that employees who feel fairly treated are 5.6x more likely to be highly engaged. Inclusive cultures see 1.4x more revenue growth.

The upshot? In an era where talent is everything, organizations can‘t afford leaders playing favorites. It‘s on all of us – from individual employees to the C-suite – to identify favoritism and tackle it head-on. Doing so is not only the right thing, but the smart thing for the bottom line.