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Five Non-Confrontational Ways For Dealing With Favoritism At Work

Favoritism is a major problem at many companies.

Have you ever experienced this familiar scenario? One of your colleagues is clearly your boss’ favorite. If there’s ever a special project, your boss asks him first, only considering the rest of the team if he’s unavailable. Or, even if the “favorite” has many collaborators on a project, your boss praises him alone.

Or maybe the role is reversed, and you’re the boss’s favorite. You receive praise and pick interesting projects, but it’s getting harder to deal with your colleagues’ jealousy.

Favoritism is a major problem at many companies.

A recent study of senior-level executives at companies with more than 1,000 employees revealed that many played favorites. 56 percent had someone in mind for promotion before the formal review – and 96 percent of the time, that favorite ended up getting the job.

However, leaders are not prone to admitting they play favorites, even if they find this behavior problematic in others. Specifically, 75 percent of the respondents reported seeing others play favorites, and another 83 percent found favoritism problematic in promoting the best individual for the role. At the same time, only 25 percent recognized this behavior in themselves.

Regardless if you’re the center of your boss’ attention or someone else is, it’s never a great feeling to know your boss plays favorites. Dealing with favoritism at work makes team members feel like they’ll never be good enough to compete with the boss’ favorite. It can create resentment, disintegrate collaboration, and make your colleagues lose motivation.

Still, it can be tricky for either the recipient of the boss’ praise or their colleagues to call out this behavior. Bosses likely don’t want to admit this behavior, so accusing them directly is nearly impossible.

Does that mean you have to grin and bear it?  

The answer is no. There are many non-confrontational ways to deal with favoritism at work. Here are a few of the most effective.

Make sure the situation demonstrates favoritism.

If you’re passed over for a promotion or a special project you really wanted, it’s natural to react with frustration.

“I’m so much better than her!” you might be tempted to tell yourself, “So, the only reason she got to be project manager over me was because she’s the boss’ favorite.”

But when you’re heated, you’re much more likely to overlook the realities of the situation, like a colleague’s extra training or extensive background in the field.

So, before you become the boy who calls favoritism, be sure you have your facts straight.

Aim to spread the preferential treatment around to others.

If you’re the favorite, you might feel like a moving target for your colleagues’ negative sentiments. You’re also put into a less-than-ideal situation.

Instead of simply accepting compliments or desirable projects from your boss, aim to spread the love. For instance, if your boss is only praising you at a staff meeting, take the opportunity to mention your colleagues’ hard work on a project, as well.

If you’re asked to work on a project, you could say how your plate was already full, suggesting someone else would do a good job heading up the initiative.

If you’re not the favorite, be more vocal about your accomplishments.

When you’re not the favorite, trying to get your boss’ attention can feel futile. But this isn’t always true. Sometimes, managers choose the same person repeatedly because they’re vocal about their interests – and have demonstrated their willingness to do a particular kind of work.

Share your experience and willingness to work on certain projects in meetings with your boss. For instance, you could say,

“I just completed a certificate in project management from Harvard Business School, and I would love the opportunity to take on a leadership role.”

Indirectly call out your boss’ favoritism.

Like we said, it’s almost impossible to call out your boss’ favoritism directly. But indirectness can get your point across while demonstrating your interest in pursuing new opportunities.

In a meeting with your boss, for instance, try saying something like this:

“I know that Ron has gotten to head up several of the recent healthcare policy projects. I’m interested in leading projects like those. Can you let me know what I’d have to do to be considered? I would be excited to build my skills and expertise in meaningful ways.”

Document the infractions.

If none of these methods work, your boss’ favoritism can take a toll on your mental health and work ethic, not to mention your relationship with your colleagues. If this is the case, start documenting the favoritism so you can speak to senior leadership or HR about it. Even if your boss isn’t happy with you, you can’t risk stalling your own career because you’ve been passed over for the favorite time and time again.

Dealing with Favoritism at Work

To some degree, preferring some people to others is human nature. But there is an insidious side to these preferences, especially if your boss constantly offers praise and special projects to the same person.

The key here is making sure that your boss is showing favoritism, rather than offering special commendations and projects to someone with particular skills. 

You’ll likely have to work harder to catch your boss’ attention if they are showing favoritism. While it can be challenging to toot your own horn, discussing your accomplishments and interest in advancement with your boss are necessary next steps.

Or, if you’re the favorite, you can suggest your boss spread the special projects to others, so they too can be recognized.

It’s never easy to deal with situations where your boss behaves unfairly. But remember, inertia is never the answer; only proactivity is an effective solution to dealing with favoritism at work.  

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