How to deal with favouritism in the workplace

No-one likes favouritism at work. But is it always as clear cut as it seems? We explore some of the reasons it happens, and what you can do when you see it.

Abbi Melville • 
How to deal with favouritism in the workplace

No-one likes favouritism; it has a demotivating effect on those staff who witness it or who suffer because of it.

So, what do we mean by workplace favouritism?

In its simplest guise, it is when someone in a leadership role consistently and unjustifiably favours one employee or a cohort of employees, over others. This favouring can take many forms: it could simply be that certain employees are treated better; they receive more promotions or are granted greater responsibility. It could be more subtle than this and may involve giving a certain employee more freedom or overlooking their mistakes where others face more scrutiny and reprimand.

What makes this more complicated is that it is perfectly normal to get on better with some employees over others, (particularly if a manager and employee share the same interests). It is also normal to tailor one’s management approach to suit certain personalities, (that’s flexible leadership.) However, the problem comes when there isn’t a performance-related reason for any preferential treatment given out by the manager. This is kind of obvious really when you think about it.

That’s why the first thing to ask yourself if you witness apparent favouritism is whether this preferential treatment is justified.

Sure, the seemingly favourite employee may laugh and joke more at the water cooler with the boss, but do they consistently work harder, hit deadlines, meet performance targets, and go the extra mile, in a way that others do not? Or have they been going through any personal difficulties recently which could account for why the manager is cutting them some more slack? Do you know the full picture?

Has there been a misunderstanding?

Without being able to answer these questions with some level of certainty, there is still plenty of room for misunderstanding here. This is why it may be wise to get some outside perspectives on the situation from trusted colleagues, who may be more familiar with the situation, simply because they predate you or know the employees in question better. This approach makes sense whether you are approaching this as a HR Manager or a line employee.

If after these discussions it becomes clear that there is a potential case for preferential treatment, what can you do to address it? As an employee, you should have a grievance procedure easily accessible – preferably stored within your self-service HR software. This procedure is designed for such situations as this. If you can’t find, it ask your HR manager, as your employer is required by law to have one.

Have an informal meeting with HR

Most good grievances procedures will recommend that you try to discuss things informally before going formal. Good first contact points for this include your HR manager, line manager, (assuming they are not the person you have the grievance about), or another manager. If they are willing you could bring along one or two other colleagues who share your concerns for greater impact.

It’s important to prepare for your meeting, so you can make your case calmly and carefully, using examples for credibility, focussing on the demotivational effect favouritism is having while trying to avoid an accusatory approach. This will form the basis for a constructive discussion with the committee.

HR managers or people managers sitting on the other side of the table of the discussions may need to conduct a discrete, brief informal investigation into the alleged favouritism.

They could propose that this favouritism be addressed by a more generalised anti-nepotism approach which deploys one or more of the following strategies.

  • A top-down cautionary memo reminding managers of their responsibilities toward equity and, making it clear that nepotism and favouritism are unacceptable.
  • Mandatory training around eliminating unconscious bias and promoting equity.
  • Conduct an employee survey on favouritism and ask for suggestions that can address the problem and include some related questions in the annual survey.
  • Introduce more transparency around reward and promotion decisions.

Of course, if this favouritism is severe enough to constitute a breach of the organisation’s equity or discrimination policies then the disciplinary procedure may need to be invoked by senior management.

These actions, taken in whole or in part may be enough to address your concerns and the matter may be closed on this basis that these tactics have the desired effect.

If you are not satisfied with the outcome you will have a judgement call to make, perhaps in consultation with this informal committee, as to whether to press on with this informally or to take it to a formal grievance, which is your right.