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Managing Favouritism In the Workplace

Published August 27, 2019 (last updated on December 5, 2023) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer


Favouritism in the workplace is the fear of many employees. And there is no doubt that bad management allows favouritism to flourish. All employees are entitled to and expect to be treated equally. Favouritism can cause employees to feel they have been treated unfairly or feel that there has been some form of discrimination. While it is not best practice, favouritism is not necessarily illegal. There is nothing unlawful about a manager favouring an employee or a group of employees. However, of course, if that favouritism is rooted in discrimination or goes against adverse action laws there may be a legal risk for the business.

What Is Favouritism In The Workplace?

Favouritism is broadly defined as favouring someone or some group in the workplace for reasons outside of their job performance. A well-known type of favouritism is nepotism. Nepotism means to show favour to family members or friends. Another example of favouritism is when an employee or group of employees is treated differently due to personal characteristics. Treatment towards employees based on personal characteristics can be seen as discrimination. Whether it is real or perceived, subtle or overt, employees are highly attuned to bosses who may be playing favourites amongst their staff.

Favouritism As A Form Of Discrimination

The Fair Work Act 2009 protects workers from discrimination. Personal characteristics protected from discrimination include:

  • age

  • race, colour, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status

  • religion or political opinion

  • sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity

  • marital status

  • pregnancy or breastfeeding

  • family or career responsibilities

  • physical or mental disability

State laws further protect employees from discrimination and may include additional characteristics. Playing ‘favourites’ based on the above characteristics can leave your business exposed to potential adverse action claims.

Managing Favouritism In the Workplace

Here are a few ways to manage favouritism, including how to prevent it. A workplace rife with favouritism fosters low morale, a bad culture and overlooking potential and good performers.

Nurture A Professional Environment

Protect your workplace from potential favouritism by nurturing a professional environment. Favouritism is a fundamentally unprofessional phenomenon. Foster a serious work focus is the first step in warding off favouritism.

Provide A Policy

Communicating to your employees and managers (if applicable) your expectations is another great way to protect from favouritism. A policy is the best way to provide this information. Providing a copy to all employees is the clearest and firmest way of communicating your expectations. It also signals how seriously you take the issue.

Offer Training

What is and isn’t discrimination is not always intuitive. To prevent favouritism due to discrimination, consider offering training for your staff. During this training session, you can educate employees of the drawbacks of favouritism.

Nip It In The Bud

If you see any signs of favouritism sprouting, stop them early. Addressing the problem directly can be difficult, but it can stop any further damage caused by favouritism. It is strongly suggested to address favouritism if you believe it may be discriminatory.

Assign Tasks Fairly

You should assign tasks in a fair and equitable way, and keep yourself accountable to who is doing what. Keep track of who has been given the more prestigious projects, who has been stuck with grunt work, and switch it up accordingly. Rotating the work is a great way to make sure everyone is feeling equally valued.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is Favouritism in the Workplace Illegal?
Favouritism in the workplace isn’t outright illegal. However, if there is discriminatory favouritism then it can be unlawful.
Under the Fair Work Act 2009, all employees in Australia are protected from being discriminated against due to personal characteristics. Some of these characteristics include race, religion, and sex.
Is It Illegal to Treat Employees Differently?
It is not outright illegal to treat employees differentlyFor example, it is fine for a strongly performing employee to be offered a promotion over other employees.
However, it is illegal to treat employees differently if it is discriminatory. Discrimination means treating someone differently based on a personal characteristic, e.g. their race, religion or sexual orientation
Is Favouritism a Form of Harassment?
Whether or not favouritism is a form of harassment is a case-by-case basis. In some cases, while it is unwelcome, favouritism is not harassment.
In other cases, favouritism can be considered harassment if its discriminatory or vindictive in natureFor example, putting the spotlight on an employee for the wrong reasons can be considered harassing or bullying that employee.
How Can Favouritism Be Prevented in the Workplace?
  1. Cultivate a professional environment. Favouritism is a very unprofessional behaviour. Set up the workplace to reward professionalism and strong performers.
  2. Produce a policy document and distribute it to staff. A policy document is the best bet to letting staff know of your expectations. A policy document has the added benefit of telling your staff that you’re serious about the issue.
  3. Offer training to staff. Favouritism training can educate staff about the dangers of favouritism – poor morale, overlooking of potential and a bad culture. Favouritism training can also cover the important topic of discrimination.
How Should Employers Treat Employees?
  • Treat all employees equally
  • Treat all employees respectfully
  • Treat all employees fairly
  • Treat all employees without discriminating against them
  • Reward employees only on the basis of the quality of their work
  • Be vigilant about any emerging favouritism in the workplace
How Do You Address an Unfair Treatment at Work?
  • Investigate the matter and interview staff about it
  • Decide and note what, if any, behaviour or actions were unfair
  • Discuss the issue with the unfairly treated employee(s) and perpetrator(s) of the treatment
  • Attempt a mediation between the two parties
  • Decide on disciplinary measures, if necessary, against the perpetrator
  • Discuss the issue with the rest of the staff
  • Re-distribute policy and procedures to remind staff
How Does Nepotism Affect the Workplace?
Nepotism can negatively affect the workplace in several ways. Primarily it sets a bad cultural precedent that people are favoured based on their personal relationships with key decision makers.
Nepotism also reduces morale in the office, as employees not part of the in-group will feel less valuedIf an employee has received their role due to nepotism, it may foster feelings that the employee didn’t truly “earn” their position.
Is Nepotism in the Workplace Illegal?
Nepotism is not illegal in the workplace. In fact many businesses are family-run businesses, and it is a business owner’s right to run their business in the best way they see fit.
However, in Australia nepotism may be considered unlawful in certain circumstances if management does not disclose that a new employee is a relative.
Is Preferential Treatment in the Workplace Illegal?
Preferential treatment overall is not illegal. However, it is illegal if the preferential treatment is discriminatory. That is, a worker is treated differently due to a personal characteristic, such as their race, sexual orientation or religion.
Preferential treatment such as nepotism or favouritism is also not illegal.

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