Is Favoritism in the Workplace Illegal?

Published June 27, 2019

Despite being detrimental to office morale and productivity, senior management still gives preferential treatment to some employees. And according to a joint study by Penn Schoen Berland Research and Georgetown University, the practice is going nowhere anytime soon. 

The study interviewed 300 business executives, and about 85 percent of them admitted that workplace discrimination exists in their organizations. Not surprisingly, about 1 in 5 confessed to having favorites and about 10 percent, to awarding promotions to their favorites. 

What is Favoritism?

Favoritism in the workplace occurs when one employee receives favors from the bosses and you do not. Yet you have the same level of experience, are just as competent, and perform just as hard. They get the lucrative assignments, job promotions, and company perks. 

In addition, they accompany the boss on trips, maintain a relationship with them outside of work, and have a free reign over projects. The rest of you, on the other hand, are pushed aside.

Is Favoritism Unlawful?

It depends on the reason why your boss favors your colleague over you. If the partiality is just that, a preference, then the behavior violates none of the favoritism in the workplace laws. All it is a sign of poor management.

Remember, some of your colleagues have more vibrant personalities or better social skills than you. Others are experts at kissing up to or are even related to the boss. So like it or not, they get the preferential treatment, and you do not.

When is Favoritism Unlawful?

When bosses show partiality but not as a result of preference, their behavior is unlawful. For instance, you get passed over for a promotion because of your religion, disability, age, race, or gender. That is illegal discrimination. 

Now, imagine your boss making sexual advances. You refuse, so they respond by withdrawing priviledges. That is illegal sexual harassment. The claim still stands even if your colleagues have a consensual relationship with the boss and receive priviledges. After all, your boss has made it clear that sex is the only route to career advancement.

Now, if the favoritism is extended to individuals related to the boss or the boss’s favorites, that is nepotism in the workplace. But if your boss assigns the best projects, shifts, clients to colleagues who do not challenge or complain against them, that is illegal retaliation.

What are the Consequences of Favoritism?

When you work in an office that is plagued by favoritism and nepotism, you become bitter and resentful at the management. Soon, your pent-up feelings affect your morale and productivity. And with time, you desert the company or resort to legal action. 

As for the company, it loses valuable employees to its competitors. And the few workers who remain stop thriving. If they chose to seek legal redress, the organization also incurs financial loses as a result.

How Do You to Stop Favoritism?

The responsibility of stopping favoritism and nepotism in the workplace falls on both the senior and junior staff. As a senior executive, discourage platonic and romantic relationships between managers and their subordinates. 

To discourage biased promotions, create a performance-based assessment system that rewards worthy employees. In addition, allow cross-level meetings where senior executives meet with their junior executive’s staff. Finally, point out favoritism when you see it.

As a junior executive, maintain professional relationships with your superiors and refuse any unwanted closeness or even the benefits of favoritism. Also, stop ostracizing the favored employee, for their favored status might not be their fault. Finally, speak up boldly against any form of favoritism.


Is favoritism in the workplace legal? The simple answer is that it depends on the circumstances. However, if you find yourself a recipient of the behavior, do not accept it. But if you are the perpetrator, stop before you lose valuable employees or find yourself in court.

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