Favoritism and Nepotism: Managing Favoritism in the Workplace

As HR professionals, we’re the ones responsible for keeping the employees at our organizations happy and productive. This goal is hard to reach if there is favoritism or nepotism on the job, especially if it’s allowed to grow unchecked.

What is favoritism in the workplace?

Favoritism in the workplace is exactly what it sounds like: favoring someone not because he or she is doing a great job, but for reasons outside of the job performance. For instance, a manager consistently offers an employee the best and most highly-regarded projects, even though that employee does not perform well enough to deserve them. Or perhaps an employee is offered a promotion over someone else who has been at the company longer and has more experience.

Oftentimes, favoritism occurs when a manager and an employee have developed a friendship beyond the workplace. Examples of favoritism in the workplace are when two coworkers worked together previously and have a shared history, or maybe they have bonded over common outside interests, like sports or music. The effects of favoritism in the workplace can become even worst when these friendships turn into potential harassment. Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, said: “Young women’s treatment at work, pay and wellbeing are trailing far behind those of young men.

Another form of favoritism is nepotism. From the Italian word for nephew, “nipote,” nepotism is showing favor to family members. In a work situation, family members may be hired, promoted, or otherwise unfairly favored over other candidates, simply because they’re part of the family. By age 30, about 22% of American sons will be working for the same employer at the same time as their fathers. (The Guardian)

You can read more about other forms of discrimination in the workplace in this recent whitepaper:

Discrimination in the Workplace – 5 Practical Ways to Minimize Selection Bias in Your Recruiting Process

When either favoritism or nepotism takes place in the workplace, the effect is usually the same. It leads to a number of negative results (aslo known as discrimination in the workplace) such as:

  • Lower morale. When employees perceive that there is favoritism in how they are treated by management, a sense of unfairness creeps in. It raises the question, “Why didn’t I get that project/promotion/corner office?” This brings down company morale, because favoritism is understood to mean that no matter what you do, your efforts won’t be rewarded if you’re not one of the favored few.
  • Resentment. What then follows is resentment towards the manager who is unfairly favoring an employee who may not be the most deserving, as well as towards the favored employee who is taking advantage of the situation.
  • Desertion. If the resentment reaches a certain point, your company may be at risk of losing some potentially excellent employees who won’t want to stick around where they’re not appreciated.
  • Overlooked potential. When a manager 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.
  • Stunted growth. With a decline in morale, growing resentment, and overlooked potential, a manager who unfairly favors one employee 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.
  • Legal implications. Last but certainly not least, the practice of favoritism may lead to legal action if an employee feels that he or she was discriminated against or was forced to work in a hostile environment. A manager’s favoritism could end up costing your company a lot of money in attorney’s fees.

Now that you know how damaging favoritism and nepotism can be to your employees and your company, your next step is to recognize it and deal with it when it occurs.  Here’s how.

Managing Favoritism in the Workplace

  • Foster professionalism. At its very core, favoritism is unprofessional behavior. A first step to avoiding it is to foster and promote professionalism in your organization. They say the best offense is a good defense. Defend your company from potential favoritism by creating a professional environment that actively discourages any kind of unfair treatment.
  • Offer training. Educating and informing managers and employees alike is another way to help avoid favoritism and discrimination in the workplace. Offer a training session on what favoritism is, why it’s detrimental, and what employees should do if they spot it in the office. If your employees are clear on what to look for, they’ll be more likely to report it if they see it.
  • Facilitate communication. Along the same lines as training, it’s important that employees know they have an open avenue for reporting favoritism confidentially. Unchecked favoritism is harmful, but employees won’t risk reporting it if they’re not sure how to go about it, or if they fear it will come back to negatively affect them.
  • Get to the bottom of it. If you discover that favoritism is taking place in your company, the most important thing is to make sure it stops. It can be a very delicate situation, to be sure, but the damage it poses is much too great to be ignored. If someone comes forth with an accusation of discrimination in the workplace, don’t ignore it. Gather the facts and get to the bottom of it.