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Favoritism at Work: Examples And Ways to Manage Employee Morale

By Julian Lewis May 5, 2024

Favoritism at Work: Examples And Ways to Manage Employee Morale

Introduction: Understanding Favoritism at Work

The Definition and Scope of Favoritism

Favoritism at work—often masked as mere preference or benign discretion—can insidiously undermine workplace morale and productivity. It occurs when one employee or a group receives preferential treatment over others without justifiable reasons, typically driven by personal biases rather than professional merit. This practice not only distorts the principles of fairness but also affects the entire organization’s dynamics, from job performance evaluations to opportunities for promotion.

How It Differs from Discrimination

While both favoritism and discrimination impact workplace harmony, they differ fundamentally. Discrimination is illegally based on race, gender, age, or other protected statuses and involves exclusionary practices. Favoritism, albeit legal, involves preferential treatment that can lead to a toxic work environment. Understanding these differences is crucial for addressing the negative consequences effectively, ensuring all employees feel valued and treated fairly.

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Identifying Favoritism in the Workplace

10 Signs of Favoritism at Work

Favoritism in the workplace can be subtle and insidious, manifesting in various forms that might not always be immediately apparent. Recognizing these signs is the first step toward addressing the issue:

  1. Inequitable Allocation of Tasks: Certain employees consistently receive easier tasks or more desirable projects, sidelining others from opportunities to showcase their skills.
  2. Disproportionate Recognition: Some workers receive undue praise or rewards from their supervisors despite comparable or superior contributions by others.
  3. Selective Communication: Managers share information with specific individuals, facilitating insider advantages that are not based on professional criteria.
  4. Preferential Treatment in Flexibility: Favoritism can be seen when particular employees are granted more flexible schedules, deadlines, or working conditions without a clear, performance-based reason.
  5. Overlooking Performance Issues: Managers ignoring the poor performance or misconduct of certain employees while being strict with others.
  6. Biased Conflict Resolution: Consistently resolving disputes in favor of one individual or a particular group, regardless of the facts.
  7. Unequal Professional Development: Providing more mentorship, training opportunities, and career advancement options to favored employees.
  8. Exclusion from Meetings or Committees: Other employees are systematically left out from meetings where critical decisions are made or their input could be valuable.
  9. Personal Relationships Overriding Professional Merit: Decisions about promotions, raises, and other benefits seem to be influenced more by personal connections than job performance.
  10. Unfair Distribution of Shifts or Overwork: Certain employees consistently getting preferred shifts or others being overworked without extra compensation.

Examples of Favoritism Between a Manager and a Direct Report

A classic example of workplace favoritism is when a manager consistently favors a direct report with whom they share a personal relationship. This relationship may result in the employee receiving:

  • Undeserved Promotions: Despite lacking the requisite experience or skills, the favored employee is promoted over more qualified peers.
  • Special Access to Information and Opportunities: Early heads-up about job openings, one-on-one mentoring sessions, and exclusive training opportunities not offered to others.
  • Protection from Consequences: Minor mistakes or even serious errors by the favored employee are overlooked or excuses are made, while similar actions from others are harshly penalized.

These dynamics not only undermine employee morale but also compromise the integrity of managerial decisions, leading to a culture where personal biases rather than objective criteria drive professional advancements. This unfair environment stifles engagement, decreases productivity, and can negatively impact the company's reputation and overall work culture.

The Impact of Favoritism on Workplace Dynamics

Encourages a Culture of Bias

Favoritism breeds a culture of bias where decisions are not made based on merit but on personal preferences and relationships. This culture deeply embeds unfair treatment within the organizational fabric, leading to a work environment where not all employees are given a fair chance. Personal biases cloud managerial decisions, which should ideally be grounded in objective criteria and performance evaluations. This disparity not only demotivates employees but also encourages them to either conform to the biased norms or engage in office politics to gain favor, often sidelining true talent and capability.

Breeds a Toxic Work Environment

When favoritism becomes prevalent, it poisons the workplace atmosphere, creating a toxic environment. Employees who perceive an unfair distribution of rewards or recognition experience decreased productivity and engagement. Over time, this can lead to higher turnover rates as employees seek a more equitable workplace. The negativity stemming from favoritism can stifle innovation and morale, pushing the company's culture towards cynicism and resentment, rather than cooperation and enthusiasm.

Reduces Trust and Respect Among Colleagues

Trust and respect are the cornerstones of effective teamwork and employee satisfaction. Favoritism erodes these elements by creating divisions between the favored and the others. Employees who witness their colleagues receiving undue advantages are less likely to feel respected or valued. This lack of trust not only impacts collaboration and team spirit but also affects overall job satisfaction and the mental health of employees. The resulting environment can prevent employees from speaking out due to fear of retribution or being ostracized, further entrenching the culture of favoritism.

This negative impact on workplace dynamics highlights the crucial need for managers and leaders to practice fairness and ensure that all employees are treated equitably. Only by fighting favoritism and promoting a healthy, inclusive work culture can organizations hope to maintain high morale, productivity, and respect among their teams.

Favoritism at Work: Examples And Ways to Manage Employee Morale

Consequences for Individuals

What Favoritism Means for the Person Considered "the Favorite"

Being "the favorite" might initially seem beneficial, granting one employee easier access to promotions, prime projects, and personal support from higher-ups. However, this special treatment often comes with hidden costs. The favored employee may become isolated from their peers and can struggle with professional relationships, as others may view their achievements with skepticism, believing they stem from favoritism rather than merit. This perception can hinder genuine skill development and lead to undue pressure to perform to justify the preferential treatment they receive.

Loss of Respect Among Peers

The respect that colleagues have for one another is foundational to a collaborative and supportive workplace. When favoritism is evident, the favored individuals often face a significant loss of respect from their peers. This erosion of respect can result from perceived unearned advantages, such as promotions or opportunities that others feel were unjustly awarded based on personal bias rather than professional accomplishments or qualifications.

Improves Job Security for Some, Reduces Job Satisfaction for Others

For some, being a favored employee means improved job security—less fear of layoffs and firmer standing within the company. Conversely, this dynamic significantly reduces job satisfaction for other employees who see the imbalance in treatment. Discontent and demoralization can spread when employees perceive that hard work and competence are less valued than currying favor with management. Such environments not only decrease individual productivity but also compromise the overall performance of the organization as employees become disengaged and less inclined to put forth their best effort.

These consequences underscore the importance of fostering a work environment where promotions and rewards are based on merit and objective criteria, ensuring all employees feel fairly treated and valued.

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Strategies for Employees

How to Prevent Favoritism as an Employee

Employees can play a crucial role in preventing favoritism by fostering transparency and meritocracy in their interactions. Start by consistently documenting and providing evidence of your work performance and the performance of your peers through regular performance reviews. This helps create a baseline that emphasizes fairness and objective criteria. Engaging in open dialogues about project roles and responsibilities with managers and peers can also diminish the scope for preferential treatment. Additionally, participating in social events and work culture initiatives fairly can help mitigate personal biases that often lead to favoritism.

Raise the Issue with Your Manager

If you suspect favoritism is affecting team dynamics or personal growth, it is important to raise the issue with your manager. Approach this conversation with specific examples and concerns, focusing on how the situation impacts your work and the overall team productivity. Frame the discussion around the need for equal opportunities and fair treatment for all employees, which can enhance respect and morale. This can encourage your manager to re-evaluate team management practices and strive for a more balanced approach.

Talk to HR

When discussions with a manager do not yield changes, or if favoritism is company-wide, bringing the issue to Human Resources is a necessary step. Prepare a formal complaint if needed, outlining instances of favoritism with as much detail as possible. HR departments are tasked with ensuring workplace fairness and can conduct discreet investigations into your claims. Utilizing the open door policy, where employees are encouraged to speak freely with HR, can provide a platform for addressing such concerns without fear of retribution.

These strategies empower employees to actively combat favoritism, helping to create a workplace where everyone feels respected and valued based on their contributions, not their connections.

Favoritism at Work: Examples And Ways to Manage Employee Morale

Solutions for Managers

How Managers Can Stop Favoritism

Managers play a pivotal role in eliminating favoritism by modeling behavior that prioritizes fairness and integrity. To effectively stop favoritism, managers should ensure that all decisions regarding promotions, task assignments, and rewards are grounded in transparent and objective criteria. This includes utilizing performance evaluations that are based on clear, measurable goals and ensuring that these evaluations are conducted fairly across all team members. Additionally, managers can combat favoritism by actively rotating project leads and diversifying team pairings to reduce the risk of personal biases influencing professional relationships.

Create a Positive Work Culture

Creating a positive work culture is essential to prevent favoritism and promote a healthy work environment. This involves establishing a culture where open communication is encouraged, and where feedback—both positive and negative—is delivered constructively and uniformly. Managers should foster an inclusive environment by organizing team-building activities that promote engagement and respect among all employees. Celebrating diverse achievements and setting up systems that reward based on merit can help negate the negative impact of favoritism and enhance overall morale and productivity.

Ensure Fair Access to Mentoring and Extra Guidance

Fair access to mentoring and professional development opportunities is crucial in preventing workplace favoritism. Managers should set up formal mentoring programs that pair employees based on professional development needs and career aspirations rather than personal relationships. This approach ensures that all employees have equal opportunities to advance and grow. Moreover, providing additional guidance through workshops, seminars, and regular one-on-one check-ins can help maintain a balanced and fair environment where every employee feels valued and supported.

By implementing these strategies, managers can lead by example, demonstrating a commitment to fairness that permeates the entire organization. This not only enhances team cohesion and employee satisfaction but also bolsters the company's reputation as an equitable and appealing place to work.

Favoritism at Work: Examples And Ways to Manage Employee Morale

Conclusion: Moving Forward with Fairness

The Role of Leadership Coaches

Leadership coaches play a crucial role in guiding organizations to move beyond mere compliance to genuinely fair practices. By training leaders to recognize their unconscious biases and the subtler forms of favoritism that may pervade their decision-making, coaches can help instill a culture of fairness. This objective perspective helps ensure that favoritism is not only addressed but also preemptively managed through strategic leadership development.

Building Relationships Based on Trust, Not Favoritism

To truly enhance employee morale and cultivate a positive work culture, building relationships based on trust rather than favoritism is essential. Trust is foundational to teamwork and productivity, and it must be actively nurtured by consistently fair practices in every aspect of management—from hiring and promotions to task assignment and recognition. By committing to transparency and equity, managers can foster a workplace where all employees feel respected and valued, paving the way for genuine productivity and satisfaction.

Moving forward with fairness isn't just an ethical imperative—it's a strategic one that can define the future success of any organization.

Read more about: Employee Experience, Leadership

About Julian Lewis

Julian Lewis is a driven and accomplished professional with a passion for driving positive change in the business world. He is the co-founder and COO at Zella Life.

His own experience as a professional of color in a Fortune 500 company led him to discover the limitations for advancement that many professionals like himself face. Determined to reach his full potential, Julian became an established business coach and entrepreneur, committed to supporting others in their pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Today, Julian is a recognized corporate trainer, coach, and leader, known for his ability to leverage real-life experiences and evidence-based methodologies to affect positive change within individuals and organizations. As the leader of Zella Life's coaching division, he is dedicated to empowering individuals and businesses to achieve their full potential.