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Managing Favoritism in the Workplace

By: Scott A. Pustizzi, SPHR

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We recently received a request from a reader to discuss the implications of favoritism in the workplace. While favoritism can be a complicated subject, it basically amounts to a supervisor or manager favoring a particular employee or group, thereby leaving excluded employees at an unfair disadvantage. This unfair disadvantage can lead to feelings of resentment and mistrust, resulting in decreased morale and productivity. While the organizational consequences can be quite serious, they are not necessarily the worst threats. There can be severe legal ramifications for favoritism in the workplace as well.

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, favoritism, in certain instances, can be considered a form of discrimination actionable by law. Sexual favoritism is particularly risky, and it occurs when a manager or supervisor bestows job benefits on a lower level employee in exchange for sexual favors. This type of exchange can quickly lead to quid pro quo sexual harassment, a serious offense with substantial employer liability.

Still, most acts of favoritism are not illegal even though they open the door to more serious allegations of misconduct. Additionally, it is important to be aware of favoritism because it is usually a sure sign that policies and procedures are not what they should be.

To combat favoritism in the workplace, we recommend a careful review of your existing employee development programs. The following questions should be considered in your review of the program:

  • Does an employee have to be on a "fast track" program in order to be promoted?
  • Are employees identified for inclusion in an employee development program "behind closed doors?"
  • Will a fast-track employee be promoted faster than a non-fast-track employee, even if both exhibit similar levels of job performance?
  • Have some employees been identified as non-promotable, regardless of future job performance?
  • Are employees in the employee development program given more interesting assignments, even though others may be more qualified to assume these new responsibilities?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then you may want to further investigate the bias factors present in your current system and take steps to make the program as neutral and objective as possible.

While it is natural for certain people to have more in common than others, employees who hold positions of authority are expected to develop work relationships that are professional and free of bias. No employee should be subject to unfair treatment because of a supervisor's prejudice or personal inclination to favor an individual or group.

For more information on this topic or assistance in developing policies that promote equality and fair treatment, please contact The Human Equation.

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The Human Equation's newsletters and publications are intended as an information source for the clients and friends of the firm. Their content should not be construed as legal advice, and readers should not act upon the information in these publications without professional guidance. Please note that newsletters and publications that are archived by The Human Equation or are not updated after initial publication and may not contain the most current information available.