Is Favouritism in the Workplace Unlawful?


Favouritism in the workplace, or being perceived to be treating some staff more favourably than others without good reason, can create tensions and expose employers to legal claims.

Favouritism in the workplace can happen when an individual, usually someone in a more senior position, treats one employee more favourably than another for reasons that are unrelated to performance.

It is fairly common for managers or employers to have a better working relationship with particular team members, perhaps their way of working aligns with yours, or you have known them since the inception of the business. Maybe your personalities just work well together. The reality is that it is only human to be able to identify our ‘favourites’ within the team, and most times, is simply an accepted fact of our working lives.

That said, if you are in a position of authority, it is essential to be mindful that the decisions you make are fair, and that your actions can be justified on objective grounds to avoid creating workplace tensions and disputes.

Generally, there are two types of favouritism at work; either giving one employee privileges and perks that other employees do not receive, or allowing an employee to get away with things that others could not get away with. Examples of favouritism in the workplace could include:

  • Operating an open-door policy but only for certain employees
  • Letting mistakes pass or using their authority to cover up mistakes of certain employees
  • Favouring certain employees in the allocation of workload. This can either be lighter duties or being given first refusal for over time.
  • Giving certain employees more praise for accomplishments that others do not get praised for.
  • Looking the other way when certain employees waste time.
  • More flexibility in terms of absences, lateness, holidays for particular employees and not others.
  • Siding with certain employees when conflicts arise at work.
  • A manager consistently getting one employee coffee above others.
  • Choosing an employee who had only worked for the company for a few months over an employee who has been there for many years.
  • Giving one employee several advanced and high-profile assignments whilst ignoring their equally experienced colleague.

Failure to take a fair and consistent approach, whether or not such treatment is intentional, has the potential to undermine the stability of a team by creating animosity and setting a dangerous precedent for what is considered acceptable behaviour. Unfair treatment may also, in some circumstances, be unlawful and expose the employer to legal claims.


Is favouritism at work against the law?

Favouritism in the workplace is not technically unlawful under existing UK employment law, however, there is the potential that it may, in some circumstances, constitute discrimination on the basis of any inconsistent or unfair treatment between one person and another. However, to constitute discrimination, the treatment must relate to at least one protected characteristic: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation.

For example, a new role has opened up as line manager for which you have three candidates. Two are supervisors within the same team, and the other, someone with similar interests as you, has only performed the role under the two supervisors for a few months. If you promote the employee with similar interests, this gives the message to the other candidates and team members that their hard work, experience, and competency are irrelevant. It also sets a precedent for preferential treatment. This situation can become discrimination if one of the candidates has a protected characteristic, as detailed above.


How favouritism can culturally impact the workplace

Setting aside potential legal implications, there are many negative consequences for the workplace. By not treating all employees equally, you are potentially fostering a feeling of resentment that can serve to de-motivate employees and damage the unity of your team. If you are only focusing on favoured members of staff, you are likely to overlook unique skills offered by others. This may also affect your business’s opportunity for growth.

Not giving other employees the opportunity to excel will restrict your company’s ability to grow, which may cost more money in the long run. There is also the real possibility that you will lose good people if they feel their talents are going unnoticed. Employees will believe that their efforts will not be recognised fairly and that the measurement for success has nothing to do with performance.

Employees returning to the office after the pandemic are concerned about ‘proximity bias’, where employers are more inclined to hand a project to an employee who is not working from home. This has led to employees feeling pressure to return to the workplace, as they believe it will adversely affect the way they are treated if they don’t.


Tackling favouritism in the workplace

If an employee has made a complaint about a manager displaying preferential treatment to another, there are several steps you can take to address the issues.


Is it actually favouritism?

You will need to understand whether the behaviour the employee has witnessed is evidence of favouritism. If a certain employee consistently works hard, delivers to their deadlines, and exceeds performance targets, they are probably more likely to receive favourable treatment. Line managers and supervisors are more likely to forgive an occasional mistake, for example, because, on balance, their overall contribution is positive. In addition, a line manager may know that the employee is going through some personal issues and could choose to be more lenient because of it. Either way, it is important not to make a hasty decision.

Line managers and supervisors who display preferential treatment almost always do so habitually with favouritism dished out unrelated to performance. It may be there are hidden factors, however when reaching a conclusion, if they are unable to justify their actions, it is likely to be favouritism. It is essential to take great care with such claims, because discrimination in the workplace is a serious issue.


Consult other employees

It is often sensible to get input from several sources before making a decision. Ask the employee’s colleagues whether they have noticed any preferential treatment. If one or more employees confirm the situation, this decreases the possibility of the person making the complaint has misunderstood or misinterpreted certain behaviour.

Try to keep in mind that the person on the receiving end of the preferential treatment may not have asked for it, and the situation may cause them to feel embarrassed or humiliated unless the issue is handled sensitively and tactfully. Maintain your professionalism and try to be polite and respectful.


Preventing favouritism in the workplace

As with most problems in the workplace, prevention is far more effective from both a cost and time perspective than dealing with them after they have happened. There are multiple ways to prevent favouritism in the workplace. Here are some steps you can take:


Have discussions on the subject

You might think about incorporating discussions on favouritism into employee training, interview procedures and review processes.


Developing open communication

Develop open and confidential lines of communication with your employees. Ensure that all your staff know they can speak with you or the HR department about favouritism on a confidential basis without judgment. If you notice a pattern, you can then take the necessary steps to address the issue.

Workplace culture surveys are anonymous and allow employees to voice their concerns without fear of any comeback. Additionally, because it is anonymous, it increases the likelihood of honest answers. If there appear to be persistent concerns about preferential treatment, such surveys will probably alert you to the fact long before someone makes a complaint.


Evaluate your own behaviour

Because favouritism is often unintentional, you should take the time to think about your actions. Consider whether you treat certain people at work better than others, for example. If you recommend someone for a promotion or a bonus, what are your criteria for selecting them?


Set or reset team expectations

Ensure that all employees have the same chances to deliver on role responsibilities by clearly communicating your expectations. If you expect employees to follow up enquiries within one business day, for example, make sure that is clear to them from the outset. Clarity of expectation ensures that employees have a fair shot at getting recognition for a job done well.


Give frequent and consistent recognition

If only a small number of employees are recognised each year, the spotlight will be more on them. Fewer instances of recognition are likely to get scrutinised by those who are passed over. In environments lacking recognition, it is only natural for employees to feel possessive about those tiny nuggets of praise you are giving.

Consider setting a goal to spend at least ten minutes each week to look at the work of the team around you to give yourself the opportunity to highlight great work. By training yourself to identify work in need of recognition it could lead to a substantial increase in how consistently you recognise others.


Recognise the action, not just the employee

Ensure that when you give recognition, you are specific about what the person did. If the recognition is framed in such a way as to focus on the person, it is easier to dismiss the recognition as favouritism. For example, “Thanks to Gina, who really stepped up!”

A better way to frame the recognition would be: “Thanks to Gina, who knew we were really up against it and stayed an extra 30 minutes, although she had a personal commitment after work. That time allowed us to decide on a way forward and get the work done. Your commitment to the team really helped to reduce all our stress!”

Giving recognition in this way helps everyone understand what Gina actually did and how it helped the team. This makes it harder to argue the merit of the recognition and lets others know what Gina did to earn the praise.


Track participation to spot gaps

Despite best efforts to recognise a wider pool of employees, there may be some who are less likely to get noticed. Perhaps they are not as visible or frequently work independently, so others do not witness their efforts. If you check periodically who has, and who has not, received recognition in the previous few months, you can determine if any deserving employees have missed out.


Need assistance?

DavidsonMorris’ HR consultants are experienced in supporting employers with all aspects of human resource best practice, including implementing cultural change, diversity & inclusion and employee engagement programmes in response to workforce issues and disputes. Contact us to discuss how to improve your organisation’s approach to workforce management and tackle favouritism at work.


Favouritism at work FAQs

Is it illegal to show favouritism at work?

Favouritism in the workplace is not technically illegal, however, depending on the situation, it can lead to discrimination claims in an employment tribunal. Although, there has to be a protected characteristic involved.

What are signs of favouritism in the workplace?

Favouritism in the workplace happens when someone in a managerial role shows unjustifiable and excessive favour for certain employees over others. This means they are treated better, considered over others for promotion, their mistakes are overlooked or they are granted greater responsibility.

What is favouritism at work called?

Favouritism in the workplace can also be defined by nepotism: the showing of favour to close friends and family members, and preferential treatment by a senior staff member to another or other employees.

How do you deal with favouritism at work?

Evaluate whether it is actually favouritism by reviewing the work ethic and performance details of the favoured employee, and speak to other members of staff before making any decisions.

Last updated: 12 February 2023


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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