Favoritism in the Workplace

Founding Member of Moshes Law, P.C.
During his years of practice, Yuriy has concentrated in litigation and real estate transactions as his areas of expertise.
nepotism and favoritism in the workplace

While favoritism in a workplace is a bad practice, it is unfortunately very common. People enjoy working with friends, which often inadvertently turns into favoritism at work. The effects of favoritism in the workplace is a negative one, as it can destroy employee morale.

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After reading the article you will have a deep understanding of:

  • Favoritism in the workplace
  • Legality of favoritism at work
  • Major problems with favoritism at work
  • Effects of favoritism at work
  • Major signs of favoritism at work
  • Examples of favoritism in the workplace
  • Fighting favoritism at work
  • Suing your employer for unfair treatment on the base of favoritism
  • Complaining to employer of unfair treatment
  • FAQ about unfair treatment at work

Let’s dive into the topic.

What is Favoritism in the Workplace?

Favoritism in the workplace occurs when a manager or other senior employee provides special treatment to an employee for reasons unrelated to that employee’s job performance. For example, if an employee and a manager are on the same golf league that meets every Sunday, they may have developed a special relationship that the manager did not develop with other employees. If the manager promotes or otherwise makes a positive employment decision for that employee based on their relationship, and not the employee’s job performance, favoritism may have occurred. Favoritism can be in the form of a promotion, better job assignments, raises, better hours, or the decision to keep that employee on the payroll when others are furloughed or laid off. 

Nepotism And Favoritism In The Workplace

Nepotism in the workplace is a practice of appointing relatives to positions for which others are more qualified. Despite its negative connotations, nepotism can be an important and positive practice in the early stages of a startup company where people are usually being asked to work for low salaries. While nepotism is generally not illegal for private employers, it is typically illegal for government positions in New York. This means that a public employee cannot hire a family member or other relative merely because of that relationship. In the private setting, engaging in nepotism, while not illegal, may be (and typically is) against the employment policy of a company, potentially subjecting the hiring manager to discipline. 

Cronyism, on the other hand, is the act of hiring friends and associates regardless of qualifications. One of the main problems with cronyism, which you also find in nepotism in the workplace, is the feeling of entitlement that employees hired under these circumstances feel. Because they are friends with\or are related to, an executive with the company, they feel they deserve raises and promotions that should be reserved for more qualified staff members. This creates conflict in the workplace and can result in losing qualified employees. As with nepotism, cronyism is generally not illegal for a private company, as private employers are free to hire who they wish. It is, however, illegal for public employers to engage in cronyism. 

One way that companies try to hide favoritism is by promoting employees they trust into positions of management, and then asking those managers to hire their friends and family members. This kind of preferential treatment has the potential to spread throughout the company as management brings more of their favorite employees into positions of authority. While nepotism and favoritism in the workplace are not technically illegal in the private sector, they are generally indicators that other unfair practices may be taking place.

The bottom line is that favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism all lead to unfair treatment at work.

Is Favoritism Illegal?

While favoritism in the workplace is not, in and of itself, unlawful, favoritism does become illegal discrimination when the reason behind the favoritism is related to race, age, sex, religion, national origin, disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation, color or genetic information. That means that as long as your boss is not making decisions based on one of the aforementioned protected traits, he or she is perfectly entitled to play favorites and hire, promote, or offer additional benefits to anyone he or she likes. Thus, your manager is not violating the law by favoring his or her golfing buddies, family members, or even someone on which he or she has a crush.

What are the Major Problems with Favoritism at Work?

While most types of favoritism do not violate any laws, you should recognize examples of favoritism at work which are in fact illegal.

Favoritism can be an illegal discrimination

This happens when employers make job decisions based on employees’ protected characteristics/traits. If a manager’s favoritism is based on a protected characteristic, such as race, sex, or religion, it would constitute illegal discrimination. For example, it is illegal for a manager to refuse to promote Latino employees and/or to only give desirable assignments to younger workers.

Favoritism in Form of Sexual Harassment

One form of sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor favors employees who submit to the manager’s sexual advances. For example, it is illegal for a supervisor to give certain employees better assignments or other job benefits because they give in to the supervisor’s sexual advances.

Favoritism as a Retaliation

Favoritism might violate laws that prohibit retaliation too. For example, it is illegal for a manager to favor employees who have not complained of discrimination or engaged in some other protected activity.

Similarly, it is also illegal retaliation if a manager disfavors an employee (for example, by cutting back her hours, assigning her to the graveyard shift, or taking away prestigious clients) after she complains of discrimination.

Overlooked Potential

When a supervisor continually favors one or a few employees over the others, he or she may be missing out on the talents and skills the others bring to the table. This can lead to promoting someone who is not ready for more responsibilities over someone who is ready and able to take on a challenge.

Lower Morale

There is a general sense of unfairness when employees perceive that there is favoritism in the way in which they are treated by management. This brings down company morale because favoritism leads employees to believe that no matter what they do, their efforts won’t be rewarded if they are not one of the favored few.


Favoritism can cause employees to begin to resent the supervisor who is unfairly favoring employees who may not be the most deserving, as well as resent the favored employees who are taking advantage of the situation.


If the resentment reaches a certain point, the company may be at risk of losing some potentially excellent employees who won’t want to stick around where they’re not appreciated.

Stunted Growth

With a decline in morale, growing resentment, and overlooked potential, a supervisor who unfairly favors one group of employees is also hurting the company overall by stunting the growth that would come from moving the best employees forward to management positions. This also is a consequence of losing employees who may have been of great value.

How to Prevent Favoritism in the Workplace?

As an employee, it is very difficult to prevent favoritism from your managers and supervisors without fear of risking your employment. This is because favoritism is technically legal, so speaking out may make you seem unappreciative or jealous in the eyes of others. Despite that, there are a number of things you can do to combat favoritism. One way is to keep track of your accomplishments and be prepared to make the case for yourself.. When your manager is looking to make a decision, be prepared to provide evidence of why you think you are the most deserving employee. Whether this is because you were skipped on the last round of promotions or because you have earned more for the company than your co-workers, concrete evidence is hard to ignore. 

is favoritism illegal

Another way to prevent favoritism is to foster a workplace culture of fairness yourself. For example, if you have employees that you supervise, make sure you are not engaging in unconscious favoritism yourself. Keep lists of which employees you provide the best assignments to. Track which employees are rewarded at work and why you decided to reward them. If the employees you supervise directly are treated with fairness and respect, they will begin to demand the same from others.  

Signs of Favoritism At Work

Sometimes favoritism in the workplace is apparent, especially when a manager and an employee are friends or the managers play favorites. Other Times, however, there is a fine line between favoritism and merit based decisions. The following are some tell-tale signs that favoritism is taking place:

  • Undue Promotions – Employees that underperform or have significantly less experience are being promoted over those who are more deserving.
  • Unfair Inclusion or Exclusion – Certain employees are included more than others and on a continuing basis by management. Sometimes, management may include these individuals in meetings more often or ask for their input more than others.
  • Double Standards – Certain standards are expected from some employees, but not from others who enjoy more lenient expectations from the manager.
  • Privileges – Some employees are given additional responsibilities or privileges that other similarly situated employees are not, such as time off, access to certain areas of the building, or access to corporate resources. 
  • Outside Work Activities – A boss and an employee oftentimes engage in activities, such as golfing or going out for drinks, without including others. While this is not necessarily favoritism, this is generally an indication that the employee and the boss have a relationship that others do not, which may affect that boss’s decisions. 

Examples of Illegal Favoritism in the Workplace

The following examples of favoritism in the workplace are illegal.

  • Women in the company are continually refused promotions and pay raises for which they are perfectly qualified while male employees routinely get promotions and pay raises.
  • Younger employees get to handle all the promising clients and projects because the owner wants to promote the image of youthful company.
  • An employee who practices the same religion as the boss is always assigned the most promising trips and conferences in exotic locations while employees who practice other religions are denied these opportunities.
  • All major positions in the company are staffed with people of a certain national origin while other qualified employees of different national origins are denied those positions.
  • Employees who filed claims of discrimination receive more criticism from a manager, while employees who never complained of discrimination get better performance evaluations from the manager.

If you encounter any of these or similar cases at work, you should consult employment lawyers for workplace fairness to ensure that illegal practices are put to an end.

What to Do if You Encounter Favoritism in the Workplace?

Try to understand the reason for the preferential treatment. Is it a friendship or other relationship? Is it because of a history or common experience together? Is it simply a matter of habit or trust? Is it due to an unlawful discriminatory reason? Knowing this may help you determine whether it is legal or illegal favoritism.

Speak with your coworkers and find out if they notice the same thing as you. If you are suspecting the illegal form of favoritism (such as ones involving harassment, retaliation or discrimination), it is good to have a witness who could confirm your observations. It is very smart to try to identify the motivation behind the favoritism prior to complaining because discrimination complaints are protected against retaliation while complaints of non-discriminatory favoritism are not protected.

If you believe that the favoritism is the result of discrimination or retaliation (for complaining of discrimination), complain to Human Resources or your supervisor in writing and inform them that you have witnessed discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. Sometimes, just bringing it to the employer’s attention can solve the problem. Once aware, the manager can work to treat employees more fairly.

Regardless of whether your case involves an illegal form of favoritism, most companies try to eliminate favoritism in the workplace, so reporting this to Human Resources or your supervisor can actually be beneficial for the company. If Human Resources and your supervisor are incapable of managing the illegal favoritism in the workplace, then you need professional help. Whether favoritism provides grounds for a lawsuit depends solely on why the favoritism took place. An experienced employment lawyer can assess whether you have any claims against your employer, and how best to protect your rights.

How to Deal With Effects of Favoritism in the Workplace

The effects of favoritism in the workplace can be debilitating to your career and professional development. Thankfully, however, they are plenty of ways to help alleviate the impact of favoritism, such a the following:

  • Determine whether or not you are actually a victim. Workplaces can be cut throat with many people fighting for the same or few promotions. While there are no surefire signs of favoritism, you should make sure that what you are experiencing is not due to other reasons. For example, are you underperforming? Does your boss not think you are capable? There may be justified reasons for these decisions in the eyes of others. 
  • Discuss the issue with your boss. This is not to say that you should accuse your boss directly, but discuss the opportunities that you think you should be receiving. Let your boss know what you think you deserve and why.
  • Work Hard and Show that You are Deserving. Many people who experience favoritism feel like there is nothing they can do. Because of that, they start to give up or become lethargic at work. This only compounds the problem and gives management another reason to not advance your career. 
  • Talk to Human Resources. If your workplace is large enough, it is likely that there is a human resources department available for questions. While you should not accuse others of favoritism without proof, starting a conversation can be helpful.
  • Talk to an attorney. If all else has failed and you believe that favoritism is seriously holding you back or that you are being discriminated against, one option is to talk to an attorney. While favoritism is not illegal, severe forms can be. An attorney can help you determine if your employer has violated the law. 

Can I Sue my Employer for Unfair Treatment Based on Favoritism?

Each situation is different and in a plain case of favoritism, you generally cannot sue your employer. If the favortism amounts to discrimination, however, this may be illegal. For example, if a manager disfavors employees of a certain racial background, religion, age, or sex, such favortism may amount to illegal discrimination.  If you believe you were treated unfairly at work due to a discriminatory or retaliatory motive, you call Moshes Law for a free consultation. Our attorneys have helped hundreds of clients overcome unfair employment practices, oftentimes without any cost to them. 


Is it illegal to show favoritism at work?

Although lots of Americans believe that favoritism is illegal, it is not. Showing favoritism is only illegal if it is based on either discriminatory or retaliatory reasons.

Can you sue for favoritism?

You can only sue your employer if the favoritism is motivated by either a discriminatory animus or a retaliatory animus for complaining of discrimination. However, you can’t sue your employer if the favoritism occurred for any other reason.

What is nepotism and favoritism?

Nepotism in the workplace refers to partiality to, or favoring, family members whereas cronyism refers to partiality to a partner or friend.

How do you deal with favoritism at work?

Take an honest look to figure out whether the favored employee is receiving preferential treatment based on a discriminatory and/or retaliatory reason. If so, complain to your employer that you believe you are the victim of discrimination and/or retaliation, and contact an employment attorney to see if you have a legal case.

Can you sue your employer for creating a hostile work environment?

Yes, you can bring an action against your employer for harassment (hostile work environment) only if you are able to show that the harassment is based on a discriminatory or retaliatory animus.

Is Favoritism A Form Of Discrimination?

Favortism is not always a form of discrimination, but in some situations it can be. For example, if a manager disfavors a certain class of individuals, such as those of a certain religion, race, national origin, sex, or diability, that could be illegal discriminatoin. An employee that was adversely impacted by this type of discrimiation may be able to bring a lawsuit against his or her employer.

When Can Employees Complain About Favoritism?

Employees can always complain to their supervisors about favoritism. The problem, however, is that favoritism is extremely hard to prove and not technically illegal. This means that employees in small companies may have a harder time getting their employers to make changes or may fear retaliation for speaking out.

Seek Legal Advice if you Are Facing Corporate Favoritism

If you are experiencing favoritism in the workplace and believe it is holding you back, you may have certain rights under the law or otherwise. While corporate favoritism is not illegal, it is oftentimes against corporate policies, especially at large employers. A working environment free from corporate favoritism is generally best for the company and the employees.

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If favoritism is taking place in your employment, contact an attorney at the Moshes Law Firm today. Our attorneys will discuss your situation through a free consultation, at no cost to you. We can help you evaluate your options for seeking a fair and just workplace.

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