The 9 Worrying Signs of Favouritism at Work

Boss guilty of favoritism with colleagues

Favouritism can be hugely detrimental to the morale and productivity of a workplace, causing resentment and a lack of motivation for other employees. It is important for any organisation to have an inclusive company culture, where every worker feels that they are judged on their performance before anything else; favouritism is totally counter-productive to this and is one of the textbook symptoms of a toxic working environment.

Therefore, it is important to be able to spot the signs of a boss who is playing favourites early on. If you’ve encountered any of the following with your own boss, then there’s a chance all is not right…

The Signs

1. The Best Projects

Just weeks after Steve wrapped up that interesting project with that really interesting company, which involved a lot of travel to that amazing place… he’s put straight back on the next plum assignment to come through the door.

This is hugely frustrating for other employees. When the same person is repeatedly getting the same opportunities to shine and take the lead on engaging tasks, it can be construed as exclusionary behaviour.

Be careful though. It’s a fine line between a boss playing favourites and simply trusting one particular person to deliver good results on certain kinds of projects. In some cases, it’s not necessarily favouritism – it’s a manager effectively utilising the skill sets of his team members.

2. The Conferences and Trips

It’s a pretty obvious sign that someone is a favourite if they’re accompanying the boss on a business trip to Paris…even though they went along to that conference in New York the month before…and the important meeting in Zurich the month before that. But aside from missing out on the odd fancy dinner and nice hotel, there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Michael Kerr, an international business speaker says. “Sharing learning opportunities shows the boss has a commitment to that person’s professional development,” he says. This means that they are gaining invaluable progression and networking opportunities while everyone else sits around the office – something you SHOULD be worried about.

3. The Trusted Advice

If you notice that a boss is particularly open to the suggestions and ideas of a certain employee, this could be a sign of favouritism – especially if the suggestions are not good. “Asking for input is a surefire sign that a boss respects someone’s ideas and judgement,” says Kerr. While there is nothing wrong with this, if they are the only opinions that the boss seeks, then questions need to be asked.

4. The Free Reign

This is one of the most telltale signs that favouritism could be at play. When an employee is subject to less scrutiny for their performance, or they are never criticised, others notice; it’s almost as if that person is being treated more as a peer than a subordinate.

It includes speaking out of place or being allowed to get on with a job unsupervised while everyone else is subject to the third degree.

You should be sensible with your suspicions though. For example, a veteran worker who has 10+ years’ experience is obviously going to be treated differently than a new hire who’s been 6 months on the job. This isn’t favouritism – its sensible management. It becomes unhealthy when everyone is at roughly the same level of competence and experience.

5. The Perks

This isn’t a big deal as such (unless you really, really wanted those company box tickets for Kings Of Leon), but it is a sign of favouritism. If someone is repeatedly the recipient of various company perks or rewards, such as tickets or discounts, then something may be amiss. If the boss has got gifts to pass on, he or she should send a blanket email across the office – not individual queries to a select few.

Simultaneously, if a select few are getting invited to personal events – but nobody else is – this doesn’t really reflect well either.

6. The 'Friend'

Sometimes bosses and employees can develop friendships that extend outside of the working relationship; maybe they have bonded over a shared interest in a particular sport or hobby. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this – certainly from a legal point of view – but it can cause friction in the long run, and become a big issue if it affects the workplace.

If you notice that this personal relationship is starting to affect the professional one, you’d be entitled to be concerned. This is because even sub-consciously, it can affect certain decisions; not ideal if you are in competition for a promotion with that person.

As a side note, if you suspect the personal relationship may be even more “intimate” (and it does happen), be extremely careful about what you say or do. Unlike nine holes of golf on a Saturday, sexual relationships at work can be in breach of contract and result in legal action – a serious and messy situation to find yourself in the middle of.

7. The Old Boys Club

Sometimes an employee and a boss might have a pre-existing relationship; they may have worked in different companies or departments, or been in school together. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but if a boss treats that person differently in a professional working environment, then they leave themselves open to accusations of favouritism.

8. The Family Member

Imagine you’re at a company, and you are overlooked for a promotion in favor of another employee – one who just happens to be the boss’s son. Straight away everyone will suspect nepotism, regardless of who was the better candidate.

Don’t just assume that somebody is an office favourite because they’re related though. In many cases, to avoid such accusations, the boss will scrutinize their performance more harshly (even if it means a difficult conversation at the family Christmas get-together).

9. The Drop-In Standards

A more subtle sign that a boss has favourites is in how he or she reacts to minor indiscretions. For example, if employee A is reprimanded for not adhering to the dress code, or leaving 10 minutes early each day, but employee B has been getting away with the same thing for months, then there is a chance that the boss hasn’t noticed. More likely though, employee B is a favourite and the boss is choosing to overlook it (whether they admit it or not).

Of course, it’s pretty childish to offer “well Sandra is always late too” as an excuse for your own tardiness, but at the same time you’re entitled to expect consistency across the office on disciplinary matters.

Favouritism or Discrimination?

While the above examples are all tell-tale signs that your boss could be playing favourites, it is vitally important to understand the difference between favouritism and discrimination.

While favouritism is a symptom of poor management skills, it should be made clear that it’s not actually against the law. It may be frustrating for employees, but it’s very difficult to actually prove; as employment attorney Donna Ballman puts it, “overlooking someone because you don’t like them may be unprofessional but it is not illegal.”

Discriminating against someone because of their race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, pregnancy, colour or genetic information is though, and if you feel that this is the case then you can take legal action.

So if Steve got that promotion because they go to Red Sox games together, there’s not a lot you can do (apart from throwing your Yankees hat away). But if you feel Steve got it because you’re 4 months pregnant (and you can offer some substance to this allegation) then you are a victim of discrimination, and that’s a whole different ballgame.

What If You Are the Favourite?

This is a tricky one. If the boss has taken a shine to you, it can be tempting to feign ignorance; if you notice that nobody else is being treated the same as you though, it’s most likely favouritism – and just because you’re the beneficiary you shouldn’t treat it any differently.

Business writer Jacquelyn Smith agrees although she argues that you shouldn’t let it affect your positive relationship with your boss. “If you suspect you’re being favored, take a second to feel flattered,” she says. “But stay humble, remain professional, and if things start to get out of hand talk to him/her about it”.

Essentially, a boss who keeps favourites is not a good boss, regardless of their personal feelings towards a particular worker. Good managers remain thoroughly professional at all times, and make decisions based purely on business and performance. When this practice is spurned in favour of personal preferences, it creates a bad atmosphere in the workplace and can have a severely negative impact on the effectiveness of the workforce. Therefore, always be aware of the signs that it may exist.

Have you ever experienced favouritism at work? Let us know in the comments below…