Favoritism at Work: How to Respond When Unequal Treatment Impacts Your Productivity and Satisfaction

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Robby Slaughter Robby Slaughter

We all grew up watching the teacher’s pet get the most attention. In the workplace we see people compete to warm up to the boss at an Olympic level. Favoritism in the office not only impacts our sense of fairness, it creates inequality in responsibility. Worse, it can breed resentment and lead to serious consequences. What should an employee do when someone else seems to be the favorite?

To understand the best way to handle this kind of situation, we need to gain some perspective on the culture of work. An office, a school, or other facility is filled with social relationships, but these connections are not the reason the place exists. The primary purpose of a business or a non-profit is to advance the mission of the organization. Although we do want people to get along, we don’t want our workplace relationships to become so overwhelming that derail the company.

While this may sound obvious, it’s completely unlike the rest of our lives. We pick our friends and partners based on mutual interests and compatibilities. We choose our neighborhoods and our preferred form of entertainment based on our own culture and experience. If you meet a group of friends at a party, you are all there because you like each other. But if you join a group of colleagues at work, you are not necessarily friends. You are not a “family.” You are a team whose members have been carefully selected to have the right skills and the right attitude to make the organization a success.

Why Favoritism Happens

It might seem like having close relationships at the office is inescapable. In fact, the Gallup organization includes a question about having a “best friend at work” as one of their key factors for predicting highly productive workgroups. We are social creatures, and we like to make connections. Part of having friendships in our personal lives is helping people, doing favors, and listening when the need our support. These are all positive aspects of healthy relationships.

However, friendships formed at the workplace can spill over into workplace responsibilities. We start to cover for people who are struggling, or we expect special treatment in the office in exchange for the personal relationship we have at home. This problem becomes even more challenging when the relationship is between a boss and an employee. This is when favoritism is most pronounced and most frustrating to other people.

Institutional Protocols and Practical Advice

If you have the authority to help define procedures for work, you can help to limit favoritism. Some companies have standing rules against relationships between supervisors and subordinates. Others try to standardize work items so that it’s clear everyone is contributing appropriately. Other organizations simply rotate employees to different departments on a regular basis, which helps to foster new ideas as well as limit favoritism.

However, if you’re just the unwitting victim of favoritism, these suggestions don’t offer much help. What do you do if a fellow coworker is the one who is getting all the attention and none of the responsibility? How do you deal with the lack of workplace fairness in this all-too-common situation?

First: resist the urge to gossip about the problem. Telling others that you are frustrated will only make the existing relationships more tense and create more challenges. Likewise, don’t approach either the employee or the manager involved in the unfair exchange.  These conversations will only make you appear ungrateful and distracted. 

Second: restructure your work to be more transparent. If others know what you are working on, they will want to do the same. A great technique is to list your current projects and accomplishments on a whiteboard, or to keep a log in a public places of your success.

Third: change more of your workplace conversations to be about work.  If you treat every workplace conversation as one about the tasks that are being done and the challenges ahead, you’ll limit problems with workplace fairness. For example, when the office favorite tries to engage you in a long conversation about their personal life, politely excuse yourself by stating the projects you need pursue back at your desk.

Favoritism at the office can degrade morale and motivation. When other people get special, unfair treatment, overall productivity drops. Eventually, the best decision for any reasonable employee is to find work elsewhere. Push back against favoritism by focusing on what matters most at work: the work itself.

Robby Slaughter is a business consultant with AccelaWork. He focuses on helping to improve employee engagement and productivity.

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