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Is Favoritism at Work Illegal?

October 23, 2015 Workplace Discrimination

When some employees receive favored treatment, it’s important to look at why

You’ve been working hard to get a promotion, but then your boss gives the position to one of his buddies.

You’d really like to change your schedule to a better shift, but you know that will never happen. Reason: Your supervisor only entertains schedule modifications from women who flirt with him.

A new account just came in that you’d be perfect for, but all the plum assignments seem to go to people who practice the same religion as the company owner.

Favoritism can be a morale killer in many ways. When you’re left with the idea that any chance for advancement depends on factors other than work performance, it can be hard to keep a positive attitude about your job.

Many people would probably agree that favoritism can be unfair. But is it unlawful?

When the Law Looks the Other Way

Favoritism, in and of itself, is not unlawful. However, there are cases where favoritism may actually be discrimination and/or harassment in disguise.

First, let’s talk about when favoritism does not violate the law.

There are no laws prohibiting managers or company owners from favoring specific people for neutral reasons. For example, your boss can promote his cousin, his drinking buddy, or best friend from college, even if those people are less qualified than other people.

In general, courts have taken the position of refusing to act as a “super personnel department” that second-guesses management decisions in situations like these.

When Favoritism is Discrimination in Disguise

However, if favoritism is driven by other preferences that are considered protected categories under the law, then it may actually be discrimination in disguise.

For instance, if a manager shows a preference for employees of certain races, national origins, religions, age ranges, or genders, then he or she may have crossed the line into discriminatory behavior.

Here are some examples of how this may look in the workplace:

  • A male supervisor only allows men to take on accounts that have the potential for high commissions.
  • Qualified staffers are continually passed over for key assignments in favor of workers who share the same religious beliefs as the company owner.
  • A supervisor seems to only offer promotions to individuals under the age of 35.

Favoritism as harassment

Favoritism can also sometimes be harassment in disguise.

For example, a manager may use his position as an opportunity to act inappropriately with female staffers. While none of the women particularly enjoy the behavior and, in fact, may be offended by it, they know that putting up with an occasional pat on the behind will probably help them get ahead in their careers.

The worker who refuses to participate may find that she’s unable to climb the corporate ladder.

Cases where tolerating harassment is a condition of advancing at work (or keeping your job) may indicate unlawful harassment.

Call Us for a Free Consultation

If you suspect that you’ve been treated unfairly due to discrimination, or because you refused to put up with harassing behavior, it may be a good idea to speak to an attorney.

Email us at, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.