Avoiding Favoritism in the Workplace

It is human nature to like some people more than others. For business owners and managers, however, this natural tendency can lead to trouble. If some employees are treated worse or better than others because of age, race, religion, or sex, for example, favoritism amounts to illegal discrimination.

Favoritism can be legal, however. Preferences in politics, sports teams, schools attended, dress, and physical appearance may be cause for favoritism that is not illegal, even if it may be unprofessional. Showing preference for employees and applicants on the basis of personal bankruptcy, credit rating, family connections, weight, credit history, and unemployment may be legal or illegal, depending on the circumstances or the laws of the states where the employees and applicants work.

Even if some forms of favoritism are legal, however, they may still result in a lawsuit. One example is favoritism for a friend or lover. In DeCintio v. Westchester County Medical Center (1986), a group of male respiratory therapists sued their employer after they were passed over for a promotion that went to a woman who was involved in a romantic relationship with the administrator of their department. The appellate court held that “voluntary, romantic relationships cannot form the basis of a sex discrimination suit under either Title VII or the Equal Pay Act.” While the unhappy employees may have lost their suit, the “winners” most likely did not experience either financial or professional vindication.

Two similar examples involve presidents. An employee of the state of Arkansas, Charlotte Perry, was passed over for a better job in favor of Gennifer Flowers, who was having an affair with the state’s governor, Bill Clinton. Perry filed an administrative complaint, and a committee found the favoritism to Flowers was improper. This decision was overruled by the governor, however, and Perry decided not to pursue the matter in court. Similarly, the preference in employment that President Donald Trump has shown to members of his family is legal, as is his habit of hiring and firing people on the basis of his estimation of their personal loyalty to him. Just because something is legal does not mean it is good.

While workplace favoritism may not always be illegal, it is bad for business, as it leads to resentment among those out of favor and complacency among those favored. This results in lower productivity and loss of focus on the company’s goals. How can business owners and managers avoid playing favorites?

Favoritism or Fair Recognition?

A first step is to distinguish between favoritism and appropriate recognition of better performance. Most often, performance can be measured. For example, the time between calls, the number and duration of personal calls, the amount of time spent on YouTube at work, or the number of customer complaints can all be measured. Quality and quantity of work can be measured as well, along with improved performance in areas of weakness. If an employee is engaging in an unwanted behavior (for example, interrupting others at meetings), the employee can be informed of how many times in the last month this has happened and reminded in the future of how many interruptions they are still making.

It is not favoritism to give employees appropriate tasks. For example, an extroverted employee would be the reasonable choice to deliver a presentation, and an introverted employee may excel at working alone on a knotty problem. To avoid favoritism, however, different tasks should offer equal opportunities for recognition.

It is also not favoritism to require employees to learn to work outside their comfort zones. The introverted employee may need to cover for the extrovert one day and deliver a good presentation, and vice versa. In most workplaces, some tasks are more likely to be plums than others. To avoid favoritism, the plums and unglamorous assignments need to be offered equitably.

A fair measure of better performance may also depend on differences in skills and temperament. If a company’s culture favors the aggressive pursuit of goals, it is fair that a timid employee would fall out of favor. If teamwork is valued, the loner may fairly not be.

How Not to Play Favorites

Once you have a picture of what fair measure of performance means in your business, the next thing to consider is whether you are playing favorites. The first step is to acknowledge and evaluate your true feelings. It is normal and unavoidable to like some people more than others. The reasons often have to do with affinity in background and personality. As a manager, however, your goal is to forge good working relationships with everyone on your team. This means going against inclinations and making an effort to build rapport with those who are less easy to get along with. Stop to have an informal conversation with those who might otherwise escape such attention, for example, and find a common interest.

Next, evaluate your actions. Are your preferences showing in assignments or resolution of disputes? Are you reprimanding one employee for a behavior you tolerate in another? Consider writing down what actions you have taken in work assignments, assigning blame, reprimands for tardiness, and the like. Is there a pattern that reveals favoritism? If so, make a conscious effort to overcome it. The input of a third party can be of great help. If you have a trusted colleague, family member, or mentor, their advice can help you decide if you are being fair or playing favorites.

Another action that speaks louder than words is body language. Are you showing the same sort of facial expressions, gestures, and attention to every employee? Are some hearing more compliments and others less? How much of this is the result of performance, and how much is the result of personal preference?

Some actions are definitely to be avoided. One is complaining about one employee to another. Another is engaging in, or allowing, gossip. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of feeling you are creating a special bond with one employee by engaging in a conspiracy of whispers. Model the behavior you want from employees by refusing to engage in conversations about others that would not be appropriate for those not present to hear.

Another way to avoid favoritism is to stay well informed about who is doing what. This can be done without engaging in gossip. Ask questions of everyone about what they are working on and why. Reward honesty with a “thank you for telling me,” and allow employees to share their true concerns about the work they are doing. Their answers may offer insights into how to improve processes. Is one person covering for another? Is a favorite taking undeserved credit? Staying in regular, two-way communication with everyone on the team is of invaluable help in knowing who truly deserves your favor.


Favoritism is generally legal; when it is illegal, it is called discrimination. But favoritism damages morale, and with it the bottom line. Favoritism is all but inevitable, even in workplaces with high standards of performance and conduct and robust methods of accurate evaluation, but it can be reduced as much as possible with conscious and systematic effort.

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