Is favouritism in the workplace ever justifiable?

Acknowledging your staff’s performance is important but when some employees get all of your attention then don’t be surprised if resentment starts brewing in the ranks

Is favouritism in the workplace ever justifiable?

Favouritism in the workplace isn’t good. If left unchecked, it could result in resentment and resignations, which are time-consuming and costly consequences that could hurt your company. But does that mean business leaders should always stay clear of it?

To answer that question, we first have to understand what we’re talking about. “Favouritism in the office is preferential treatment given to a particular staff member, usually by their manager,” explains Paul Russell, managing director at Luxury Academy, the luxury training company. 

He believes there are two types of favouritism. “[The] first is perhaps the one that most identify as favouritism, which would be unfair treatment based on personality, gender, interests and so on,” Russell continues. “The manager likes a particular staff member, perhaps because of a shared love of golf or because the get on well and thus show favouritism.” 

While normal, this form of preferential treatment is still problematic. It could for instance be linked to the idea of the old boys club where male employees were provided with an inside track based on them sharing the experience of possessing a penis with their male superiors. Or it might be even worse, managers and business leaders could have some deep-seated issue with an employee’s race, religion or sexual preferences. And if things like those are the basis of a staff member receiving preferential treatment, then you could be facing a a lot of legal issues given these are among the nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination, after all, is never okay. 

However, there is another form of favouritism, according to Russell, which is based on workers’ performance. “For example, a high-performing employee might receive preferential treatment in terms of the projects [they’re] given or more leeway in working hours, shift and breaks,” he explains. These unofficial reward systems may be an easy way for employers to ensure a constantly high quality of work from their high performers and Russell believes it’s extremely normal. Still, he warns it can have unnecessary, unforeseen and unwanted consequences. “When one particular employee is the constant recipient of such unofficial rewards, accusations of favouritism may be levied,” he says. 

So could either of these forms of favouritism be justified? “No,” answers Helen Jamieson, CEO of Jaluch HR & Training. “Favouritism is lousy for morale. It makes people feel resentful and excluded. Favouritism creates unhelpful division. Favouritism is for poor or unexperienced or weak or ego [and] power-driven leaders who have a lot to learn about leadership generally and specifically how to get the best out of the whole team.”

And entrepreneurs and their managers can avoid favouritism by taking a step back to look over the recruits. “If you notice that an individual or team is deflated or not as invested in their role, it’s important to tackle the problem,” says Bryony Edwards, director of Go Find Me, the online recruitment portal. “Book regular one-to-ones or reviews with staff to ensure they feel listened to and so that they can raise any concerns they may have. Where suitable, these concerns should be addressed as soon as possible and, if appropriate, done so in a public manner. This will allow the rest of the team to see that action is being taken if they have similar concerns.”

Other efforts to tackle favouritism, which equated to discrimination of someone else, is to give managers training on unconscious bias, inclusion, legislation and boost their overall leadership skills. But in the end, it’s paramount business leaders do everything in their power to avoid giving people preferential treatment. “There’s no reason and no excuse for favouritism,” concludes Jamieson. 

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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