Fighting Back Against Favoritism at Work

What Managers and Employees Can Do To Promote Equity

Oct 11, 2019

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Do you ever feel like you are being left out of watercooler conversations, inside jokes and the fast track for promotions? Your manager might be playing favorites.

While manager-employee relationships vary based on a variety of factors, perceptions of favoritism are prevalent and take a heavy toll on workplace productivity and morale, says Hui Liao, a leadership and management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. 

Liao says favoritism is a two-sided affair involving managers and employees, and both sides can take steps to prevent the negative effects.

For Managers

Setting the right tone starts with communication for people who lead teams or dole out resources.

Liao says it is natural for any workplace to have higher-performing employees being recognized for their efforts. But the criteria for this recognition should be clearly conveyed to employees.

“Make sure that your standards are legitimate, transparent, consistent and understood by your employees so that they do not perceive your deferential treatment as favoritism,” Liao says. 

Managers who play favorites also should consider the hidden costs.

“Employees may not say anything about favoritism,” Liao says. “But they will withdraw psychologically, not put in as much effort and sometimes even undermine the work of others if they feel that the recognition or rewards are undeserved.”

For Employees

Employees can take different steps to curb workplace favoritism. Liao shares at least five tips.

Stop and think. Liao recommends taking a step back and assessing the alleged favoritism to determine if it is legitimate or simply performance-based recognition. “If you want the treatment your coworkers are getting and believe you will get it through better performance, then it is probably not favoritism,” Liao says. “Supervisors may be treating people based on how they differentiate the levels of performance. Don’t label every difference in recognition that you observe in the workplace as favoritism.”

Increase your value. One of the keys to establishing a higher quality relationship with your boss, Liao says, is gaining a better understanding of how to contribute more in the workplace. “As an employee, your best currency is your expertise and your unique value added to the workplace. The more you can generate, the more your supervisor will value, trust and respect you,” Liao says.

Flip the script. Liao encourages employees to consider their supervisor’s perspective and what they might be looking for at this stage in their career. “What can you do to help them?” Liao asks. “The more you help them, the more they can help you because it should be a mutually beneficial relationship,” she says.

Get social. The golden rule of treating others the way you like to be treated applies in the workplace as well, Liao says. “Don’t just be all business and talking about work all the time,” she says. “Show your interest for them as a person because the quality of social relationships is a main reason why supervisors differentiate among subordinates.”

Know your worth. In the event of clear favoritism or mistreatment, Liao urges employees to change the power dynamic, in part by showing how you can contribute unique value to the team. “Oftentimes, if a supervisor treats you unfairly it is because there is a greater dependency of you on them rather than vice versa,” Liao says. “If you have a certain expertise or provide important resources that others do not, then you will increase your supervisor’s dependence on you. They will think twice to treat you unfairly.”



About the Expert(s)

Hui Liao

Dr. Hui Liao is the endowed Smith Dean's Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Before joining Maryland, she was on the faculties of the Rutgers University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She received her Ph.D. with concentrations in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, and her BA in International Economics from the Renmin University of China.

More In


The Remote-Work Guide To Difficult Conversations

These past few months of remote work have been challenging, for sure. And emotional intelligence has never been more important.

Jul 09, 2020
Leadership in a WFH Era

As organizations look to make telecommuting a long-term solution, leaders are sorting through the challenges of how to keep employees engaged and connected.

Jun 08, 2020
Summer Reading List 2020

It's the 17th annual Summer Reading List for Business Leaders – your summer reading guide as recommended by Maryland Smith's faculty experts.

May 27, 2020