Favoritism at Work


Favoritism at work is a common workplace issue we’ve all likely faced at one point in time.

You may have experienced your manager giving the “good project,” the great clients to the same person every time.  They invite the same people or person to their summer home in the Hamptons. The same person might get tapped for the big promotions, and you’re left wondering what you could have done differently.

Or worse, you’re left wondering what they had over you. 

While it can affect anyone, it’s incredibly damaging to those who don’t have connections to the decision-makers.

Since it can show up in various ways, it may be hard to imagine it being detrimental to long-term career growth. But the reality is, there can be a significant impact. 

Let’s dig into this more.

What is favoritism at work?

Simply put, it’s the practice of showing partiality to one person or group over another. 

It can be intentional or unintentional, either way, it’s a problem for organizations and employees.

Favoritism at work can even potentially lead to discrimination when it prevents employees from career progression based on their qualifications rather than their relationship with the manager or supervisor.

It creates an unfair environment where some people feel less appreciated since they don’t have close relationships with their manager.

Although, favoritism at work, in and of itself isn’t illegal, it can be a subtle cover for illegal behavior.

Legal issues may arise when it’s used to drive other decisions based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or other protected categories. It can lead to anger and resentment among co-workers who feel they aren’t getting their fair share of the benefits. 

How Does it Show Up?

It can be shown in many ways, including giving special treatment or opportunities. Favoritism at work can be shown by anyone including your manager, coworker, or even a friend.

It’s usually viewed as unfair because it creates an uneven playing field for those who aren’t favored and makes it difficult for them to compete with their favored colleagues. This can be a problem in the workplace because it creates resentment and tension among coworkers. It also makes it difficult for employees to trust their managers, which may lead them to question their decisions and their professional ethics. 

Concrete Examples:

  • Your boss gives more assignments or responsibilities to one employee over another – even though both employees are performing equally well on their existing tasks.
  • One person gets more praise for doing the same job as others who do it less effectively or efficiently (or at all).
  • Someone gets promoted faster than others who are equally well qualified for that position.

Of course, this list is far from exhaustive, but it helps illustrate the point.

When does favoritism at work happen?

When you have a limited number of resources, it is easy to favor one person or group over another. Favoritism can happen in any workplace, but it is most common when there is a lack of transparency. Companies that do not provide clear policies, direction, and/or procedures for their employees may be more susceptible to this kind of behavior. This is impart due to the fact that there is no clear way for employees to know how they should be treated, or what’s expected from them.

If your company doesn’t have an established policy against favoritism at work, and you feel like your manager has been treating you unfairly due to personal relationships with others in the office or because she believes that she has power over you (e.g., because she hired and trained you), then speak up.

It’s important that everyone feels comfortable bringing their concerns forward so it can be addressed and mitigated by the correct individuals— even if it seems benign and inconsequential in the moment, it’s definitely worth addressing. 

How favoritism hurts an organization

If you have a favorite employee, it’s natural for them to feel more valued and important than the others.

However, this preferential treatment may come at the expense of other employees who are left feeling less important, and less valued. This can create tension between coworkers who feel that they’re being treated unfairly by management–and even lead some people on your team not want to work as hard or try as hard because they know there won’t be any recognition from management anyway.

If your organization is small enough, it may be possible for you to talk directly with each employee about their concerns and create a solution that works for everyone. However, if you have a larger team, this can be difficult to do.

In these situations, it’s important to develop a system of accountability so that people feel like they’re being treated fairly and equally by management.

Who can be subject to favoritism at work?

Literally anyone.

However, it’s typically seen where someone in a position of leadership demonstrates favor to a person—but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

Peer-to-peer favoritism can be equally as pervasive. This example may not have the same widespread impact, but it can certainly alter the team culture and interpersonal dynamics within a team or organization.

In any case, there are many ways in which favoritism can rear its head at work:

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  • Your boss gives more assignments or responsibilities to one employee over another – even though both employees are performing equally well on their existing tasks.
  • One person gets more praise for doing the same job as others who do it less effectively or efficiently (or at all).
  • Someone gets promoted faster than others who are equally well qualified for that position.

How to stop the favoritism cycle if you’re favored

What if you’re the recipient of preferential treatment and you’re benefiting from favoritism at work? The is the time to be professionally and ethically responsible leading to creating a more inclusive environment for others.

Consider doing the following:

  • Find power in saying “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s hard turning down a useful benefit—especially from your manager, or someone in leadership. But I encourage you to gracefully decline where you can. Say something like: “This is a particularly busy time of month for me, can I collaborate with Christina on this project?”
  • Name it and call it out: Similar to the point above, it’s hard to decline useful benefits. If this situation arises, it’s okay to call it out directly by saying something like “This is amazing, thank you! Did other members of the team get this? What did I do that was so special?” This simple action shines a light on any subconscious behavior driving favoritism at work.  It also forces the other person to help you (or others) understand why you were selected.
  • Highlight and center others: You might not agree. But as the recipient of favoritism, there’s a responsibility you have to shift the praise to others who aren’t in the same a position of power. Figure out where you can elevate others and share the shine.

How to stop the favoritism cycle if you’re the victim

If you fear you’re the overlooked employee, there’s steps you can also take to remediate the situation as well.

  • Take a moment to be introspective: Sometimes people really do earn what they receive—and that’s great. What that means for you is that you should take a moment to really self-reflect. Ask yourself if you’re really the victim and whether not you’re being overlooked. If you believe you are take the steps to call out the behavior. If you’re being outperformed, take that a signal to step up your work performance.
  • Talk to your manager: Again, I know this is really hard. If you’re able to find someone to advocate on your behalf, like HR, do that. Otherwise approach your manager and have a genuine and honest conversation with them about your concerns.
  • Leverage HR: If your organization has an HR person aligned to your team, talk to them. That’s what they are literally there, to champion and advocate for you when needed.

Organizations should take steps to minimize favoritism in the workplace

If you’re in a position of leadership, and want to minimize favoritism, there are several steps that can be taken.

First and foremost, make sure that the process for making decisions is clear and transparent. If people know how they will be evaluated, they’ll feel more confident about their chances of success.

Secondly, give people an equal opportunity to contribute their ideas or participate in decision-making processes, where possible. Naturally not all contributions will move forward, but encourage people to share their thoughts.

Lastly, ensure that everyone involved in the decision-making process is aware of it and how it works. This helps ensure that there are no biases in the way decisions are made or in how they’re implemented.

Finally, make sure that everyone receives fair treatment regardless of whether someone has personal connections within the company or not. 

The best way to avoid favoritism is to have a clear, transparent process for making decisions

This means that everyone knows how decisions are made, and can contribute to the process. Make sure people understand how to provide input if they don’t agree with what’s being decided on their behalf.

If you’re making decisions that affect your employees, it’s important to transparent and give reasons behind these decisions. Not to mention, you’ll be respected you more if they feel like they know what’s going on.


Favoritism at work can be a serious problem.

It’s also something that you can avoid if you’re aware of the signs and take steps to prevent it.  It’s harmful to organizations and people because it creates unfairness and distrust among employees which makes people less likely to share information or collaborate.

If you’re able to address the circumstances, you’re well on your way to creating a thriving work environment for yourself.

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