In any workplace, favoritism is always a possibility. Whether it's between coworkers or managers and employees, favoritism can lead to tension and conflict. Handling favoritism in the workplace can be tricky, but there are some steps you can take to minimize the negative effects it can have on your job.
What Is Workplace Favoritism?
Workplace favoritism is an act of preference for an individual or group at work. There are many reasons why a manager or leader might show favoritism, but it can often lead to tension and conflict among employees. Those who feel they are being treated unfairly may become resentful, while those who receive special treatment may begin to feel entitled. In either case, favoritism can damage morale and performance, and create an atmosphere of distrust.
What Causes Favoritism in the Workplace?
When a manager favors certain people, the other employees feel uncomfortable but also anxious to find out the reason. Here are some causes of such preferential treatment:
The most common cause of favoritism occurring at work is the manager knowing an employee on a personal level. This could be because they are related or knew each other before they worked together, but it can also be because they developed a personal friendship after meeting through work.
Embedded discrimination can cause a manager to view a particular employee in a skewed way. This can be due to common biases against protected characteristics such as women, certain races, or LGBTQ+ people. However, it could also take the form of more personal discrimination (e.g. a manager had a bad experience with a staff member from Liverpool and has since developed a distrust for people with that accent.) This is known as the halo effect - a profoundly common phenomenon in which a person makes a snap judgment about another based on certain perceived traits. 
Despite being the reason for many ethical decisions in the workplace, empathy is largely biased toward those we feel similar to. Yale Psychology professor, Paul Bloom explained "I actually feel a lot less empathy for people who aren’t in my culture, who don’t share my skin color, who don’t share my language. This is a terrible fact of human nature, and it operates at a subconscious level, but we know that it happens." Furthermore, because empathy involves emulating the feelings of others, it can lead us to feel overly concerned for more expressive people and ignore the plight of people who are more introverted.
Many historical studies have shown how humans are biased toward more attractive people, and nowadays, there is evidence that this affects the workplace. For example, a 2005 Harvard study showed that employers were prepared to give attractive candidates 10.5% higher salaries than other employees. These biases are unconscious, meaning that we genuinely believe an attractive person is more competent regardless of their actual skills.
Some bosses may treat an employee favorably because they share the same communication style. This could be that they are equally expressive, share a level of confidence, or have similar body language. It could also be that they are both more or less inclined to emotional disclosure, or to have very straight-talking discussions about the business. Communication is the gateway to bond-building, which is why bosses may favor those they can click with in a discussion.
Effects of Favoritism in the Workplace
Unfair treatment from an office manager can negatively affect everyone, including the favored employee. Here are some prominent ways this happens:
- Division within the workforce. If one employee gets unreasonable benefits, other employees are likely to retaliate. This can create resentment, mistrust, and destroy lines of communication.
- Lower motivation. If an office manager started to treat some employees better, this could cause others to have a lower drive to impress that manager. It could also give the impression that hard work goes unrewarded, making it seem pointless to even try.
- Lower self-esteem. When some workers are given preferential treatment, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among those who are not receiving the same level of attention.
- Poor mental health. A lack of trust and motivation at work can gradually degrade our sense of purpose. It can cause higher stress levels and even lead to depression.
You may also read our article on the Effects of Favoritism in the Workplace to learn more.
Why Workplace Favoritism Is Bad for Business
Playing favorites can also create problems for a company. Not only will staff view the company differently, but their behaviors will likely be affected, too.
- Decreased job performance. Lack of trust and motivation can wreak havoc on individual performance as well as team collaboration.
- Higher turnover. Lower workplace satisfaction causes a higher turnover rate. The link between favoritism and turnover intention is well documented in studies, including a 2020 study on nurses. 
- Affects the company image. Favoritism suggests poor management and incoherent company culture. It can also be publicly documented on workplace review sites such as glassdoor.com, affecting the public perception of a company.
- Legal action. Some forms of favoritism constitute illegal discrimination, which can carry a huge legal risk. This encompasses exclusion of certain employees from benefits, but also potential negative behaviors towards certain groups, such as sexual harassment.
Examples of Favoritism in the Workplace
- Unfair hiring. Favoritism can be demonstrated right from the CV screening process, especially if they have friends or family working in the same company.
- Fewer expectations. Usually, a manager who exhibits bias will place fewer expectations on their favored employees. This could include aspects of their work ethic as well as their output data.
- Unfair pay rises. A favored employee is more likely to receive pay rises, especially when there is no independent body evaluating such decisions.
- Unfair bonuses. Similarly, bonuses can be tweaked by those in charge so that their preferred staff members receive a higher payout.
- Personal involvement with the boss. Bosses can be overly social with certain staff members and even display this to their other employees through social media.
- Pet names. A boss might use a pet name for certain employees as a way to demonstrate closeness. This can cause others to feel marginalized and under-appreciated.
- Only some voices are heard. During meetings, a general manager may be much more likely to take into account suggestions from preferred members of staff. This can cause a ripple effect of only some employees feeling confident in speaking.
- Scapegoating. When things go wrong in a toxic workplace, often, certain people will be unfairly blamed for the damage. Scapegoats often take the brunt of the blame when a favorite makes a mistake.
- Mentoring. Just as with any helpful behavior, mentoring can sometimes be solely directed toward one employee. This wilfully cuts out others from developing new skills and even achieving a promotion.
- Extra attention. When it comes to having a personal chat at lunch, attending to needs, or even giving constructive feedback, a favorite employee can often gain this extra attention from senior management.
- Double standards. Whatever is expected of one employee, is not always the case for all staff in a workplace with uneven standards.
- Extra holidays. Someone in a leadership role may even allow their favorite employees to take extra leave, regardless of company policy.
- Non-favorites are more likely to be reprimanded. They may even be more likely to experience heavy monitoring, punishment, demotion, or dismissal.
- Promoting those who benefit the manager. This is known as patronage - where a manager promotes a person they trust and then allows them to hire their friends or family in order to build an allied workforce.
You may also take a look at our post on the Examples of Favoritism in the Workplace for further information.
What Are the Types of Favoritism?
Favoritism occurs for any number of complex reasons, but we can categorize most cases within four main groups:
- Nepotism. Hiring, promoting, and generally favoring members of your own family.
- Cronyism. The same as nepotism, but with friends and allies rather than family.
- Sexual favors. When a manager expects sexual interactions with one of their direct reports, in exchange for work-related privileges.
- Patronage. Filling the workforce with associates of trusted employees in order to maintain a sense of power.
How To Deal With Favoritism in the Workplace
Favoritism at work can create a feeling of unfairness and can lead to low morale and decreased productivity. If you suspect that bias is occurring in your workplace, there are a few steps you can take to address the issue.
How Do You Prevent Favoritism?
- First, try to develop open communication channels so that employees feel comfortable raising concerns.
- You can also suggest conducting a workplace satisfaction survey to get feedback on employees' experiences.
- Finally, you can incorporate the topic of favoritism into onboarding discussions so that new employees are aware of the issue and know how to address it if they experience it.
By taking these steps, you can help prevent favoritism from happening in your workplace.
How Do You Combat Favoritism?
- If you have experienced this positive bias from a leader, you can vouch for others on the team to ensure their voices are heard and they get an equal footing. It can be difficult to have these conversations with a superior, but it is possible to think of ways to prompt a manager to reevaluate their unfair treatment of certain staff.
- If you notice favoritism to others, it is important to establish some clear information about what is happening. In some cases, it may not actually be favoritism occurring, but an enthusiastic employee seeking extra guidance or somebody being rewarded for overtime.
- It is important to remain professional and communicate clearly with a manager or the human resources department. It may be necessary to bring these concerns up more than once or to provide a detailed report on the incident.
- If it appears that the manager is exhibiting discrimination, it may make their favoritism illegal and be worth following up legally.
For more information, see our article on How to Deal With Favoritism in the Workplace.
What Is the Difference Between Favoritism and Nepotism?
Nepotism is when someone gets a job because they are related to the person in charge, while favoritism is giving someone preferential treatment because they are liked. Nepotism is a form of favoritism but they aren't one and the same.
For more information, see our article on Nepotism vs Favoritism in the Workplace - What Is the Difference.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Favoritism a Form of Discrimination?
If a manager chooses a favorite based on that person's age, gender, race, pregnancy status, ability, or sexuality, then that would constitute discrimination.
Is Favoritism in the Workplace Illegal?
It is only illegal if that discrimination is based on a protected characteristic such as race, age, sex, etc. If the favoritism is based on something more subtle such as a personal liking, it is difficult to prove and does not necessarily cause legal issues.
Can Favoritism Be Good for Workplace?
Favoritism involves treating certain people better due to bias rather than merit. While some level of competition between staff is healthy, it is not the case with favoritism. This is because the attributes being measured are often arbitrary qualities, such as how much time the employee spends socializing with the boss. For this reason, favoritism can create a neurotic and unpredictable work environment - this is not good for the workplace.
Is Favoritism an Ethical Issue?
Favoritism is unethical but common and difficult to prove. Because it is not largely a prosecutable issue, an HR department or a boss should treat it as an ethical issue to be worked on internally. By setting the same standards for the whole company, favoritism should become a less common practice.
How Do You Know if Your Boss Favors You?
You may notice others in your team are more stressed. Upon reflection, it might become clear that more stress and expectation are being placed upon their shoulders. Your boss may appear overly friendly with you, offer you a raise without a clear reason, or give you praise in situations where you don't feel like you accomplished very much. There are many other ways a boss may show a preference for you - the key is to reflect on your work experience in comparison with your colleagues.
How Does Favoritism Affect an Adult?
As an adult employee, being treated unfairly will have negative repercussions on mental health and work ethic. However, an adult would hopefully feel empowered to raise grievances in an assertive way or know the correct channels to go down to report such incidents.
- Cherry, 2020 https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-halo-effect-2795906
- Illing, 2019, https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/1/19/14266230/empathy-morality-ethics-psychology-compassion-paul-bloom
- Rosenblat, 2006, https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/3043406/mobius_beauty.pdf?s..
- Rosales et al. 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32794250/