Favouritism in the Workplace: How to Spot and Prevent It

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“Leaders who practice favouritism in the workplace have no chance to build a culture of trust.” Robert Whipple. 

Favouritism and cliques in the workplace create an ambiguous environment where merit and performance take a back seat, leaving employees struggling to navigate an unlevel playing field. This article explores the concept of favouritism in the workplace, its adverse effects, and ways to prevent it, guiding you towards a healthier, more equitable work environment.

What is favouritism in the Workplace?

Favouritism in the workplace occurs when an employee receives preferential treatment over others based on personal association rather than performance. This can stem from family relationships (nepotism) or friendships (cronyism). While forming bonds with colleagues can enhance employee satisfaction and engagement, unchecked preferences can lead to favouritism, creating cliques and alienating other employees.

Favouritism can be subtle or overt, but its presence is always detrimental. It skews the work environment and disadvantages certain employees, creating a perception of unfairness that can be just as harmful as biased treatment.

Why is Favouritism a Problem at Work?

Favouritism at work can harm the business. It can cause unnecessary turmoil, destroys team chemistry, and even creates internal conflict.

Workers who believe their employer is mistreating them may feel various emotions.

  • Feeling resentful toward co-workers
  • Losing respect for the team leader
  • Motivation decreases
  • Loss of Productivity
  • Employee turnover rates are increasing

Is Favouritism in the Workplace Illegal?

Favouritism is typically unethical but not illegal unless it leads to prohibited behaviours such as discrimination based on protected characteristics (gender, race, age, disability, or religion), harassment, retaliation, or violation of company policies or employment contract terms. When favouritism results in differential treatment of employees with legally protected characteristics, it becomes a form of discrimination.

For instance, if a manager overlooks a qualified female employee for promotion in favour of a less experienced male friend, this can be grounds for a discrimination claim based on gender bias. The key is whether favouritism leads to actions that contradict employment laws. In addition, favourtism can lead to grievances being raised within the workplace which could ultimately lead to constructive dismissal claims.

Causes of Favouritism in the Workplace

Favouritism in the workplace often stems from personal biases and relationships. Managers may unconsciously favour employees with common interests or personal connections, such as family favouritism in the workplace or friends. This can also arise from a desire to maintain harmony within a team by supporting those who are loyal or agreeable. Additionally, favouritism can result from ineffective leadership training, where managers lack awareness of their biases or fail to establish clear, merit-based criteria for decision-making. Lastly, an organisational culture that tolerates or overlooks partiality further perpetuates the cycle of favouritism, undermining fairness and equity.

Examples of Favouritism in the Workplace

Favouritism can manifest in various ways, both overt and subtle. Here are some common examples:

Unjustified Promotions and Raises

Favouring certain employees for promotions raises, or high-profile assignments based on personal relationships rather than merit.

  • Assigning project leadership or high-profile meeting attendance to favoured employees.
  • Promoting less qualified employees over more capable candidates.
  • Distributing raises, bonuses, or benefits without clear justification.

Unfair Task Distribution

Assigning preferred tasks to favoured employees while burdening others with less desirable work.

  • Giving sought-after tasks to favoured employees beyond their role.
  • Assigning menial tasks to employees not in the favoured circle.
  • Accommodating only favoured employees’ requests for flexible work options.

Double Standards for Performance and Behavior

Holding employees to inconsistent standards.

  • Excusing the missed deadlines of favoured employees while enforcing them on others.
  • Ignoring misconduct in favoured employees but reprimanding others for similar behaviour.
  • Publicly praising only particular employees while overlooking others’ achievements.

Social Exclusivity

Forming exclusive social circles that influence workplace decisions.

  • Managers socialising outside work with specific employees.
  • Decision-makers spending unwarranted time with certain employees during work hours.
  • Romantic relationships between colleagues or a manager and subordinate.

Adverse Effects of Favouritism in the Workplace

Favouritism can have several detrimental effects on an organisation, including:

Toxic Work Environment: favouritism fosters resentment, unhealthy competition, and stress among employees, undermining efforts to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

  • Employees may feel obligated to take on excessive workloads to get noticed.
  • Overlooked employees face an unpredictable hierarchy, leading to stress and burnout.
  • Favouritism undermines diversity and inclusion efforts, turning them into mere illusions.

Increased Employee Turnover: Talented employees may leave if they feel undervalued and believe their efforts are not reasonably recognised.

  • Favouritism disconnects employees from the organisation, motivating them to seek employment where their efforts are appropriately rewarded.

Erosion of Trust and Respect for Leadership: favouritism damages employees’ trust in leadership, leading to lower morale and decreased teamwork.

  • Employees doubt the impartiality and judgment of leaders who practice favouritism.
  • Lower morale and negative dialogue can permeate the workplace.

Decreased Productivity: favouritism disrupts team harmony and motivation, leading to lower productivity and innovation.

  • Employees granted promotions or projects based on favouritism may only produce mediocre output.
  • Preferential treatment creates divisions within teams, affecting motivation and collaboration.

Solutions to Favouritism in the Workplace

Preventing favouritism requires a proactive approach. Here are four actions on how to deal with nepotism and favouritism in the workplace:

Establish Clear Policies

Implement policies that explicitly address nepotism and favouritism, outlining guidelines for hiring, disciplinary actions, and reporting processes. Ensure these policies are communicated and accessible to all employees.

  • Define what constitutes nepotism and favouritism.
  • Set guidelines for hiring friends and family members.
  • Outline disciplinary actions for practising favouritism.
  • Provide a transparent process for reporting favouritism.

Provide Leadership Training

Educate leaders on recognising and avoiding favouritism, emphasising the importance of unbiased decision-making and setting a good example.

  • Highlight the negative impact of favouritism on team dynamics.
  • Promote awareness of personal preferences that generate self-serving biases.
  • Train on unbiased decision-making and fostering cohesive teams.

Promote a Merit-Based System

Ensure all employment decisions are always based on qualifications, contribution, and performance. Use objective criteria and standardised processes for hiring, compensation, promotions, and assignments.

  • Set clear expectations and provide frequent feedback.
  • Base performance reviews on consistent standards.
  • Require managers to quantify decisions on raises and bonuses with impartial data.

Investigate favouritism Complaints Thoroughly.

Maintain an open channel for reporting favouritism and promptly, thoroughly, and objectively investigate complaints. Ensure confidentiality and treat all parties with respect.

  • Take every complaint seriously.
  • Gather and examine all facts to determine if favouritism policies were violated.
  • Ensure a safe mechanism for addressing claims.

The Vital Role of HR in Preventing Favouritism

Human Resources is a key force in preventing favouritism in the workplace. By implementing fair policies, providing ongoing training, and ensuring transparency, HR helps create an environment where meritocracy prevails. HR professionals are instrumental in establishing the processes and culture that discourage favouritism and promote equity.

HR can also foster open communication, ensuring employees are comfortable expressing their concerns without fear of retaliation. HR also ensures that favouritism is identified and addressed promptly through regular audits and reviews, maintaining a fair and productive workplace.

Choose HR Team for Your HR Consultancy Needs

At HR Team, we understand the complexities of managing workplace dynamics and are dedicated to helping organisations create fair and equitable environments. As leading HR consultants in Ireland and the UK, we offer comprehensive HR consultancy services tailored to your needs.

With HR-Team, you gain access to a wealth of HR knowledge and experience, ensuring your business operates smoothly and fairly. Our commitment to excellence makes us the best HR agency to help you foster a positive workplace culture.

Contact HR Team today to learn how our expert HR consultancy services can help your organisation prevent favouritism and promote a fair, productive work environment. 

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