Favoritism In The Workplace
Updated: Jul 8
I have been working at a small local agency for just over a year. Because of our size, we do not have an HR representative that we can go to with our concerns. The CEO and Owner basically acts as the end-all-be-all for any issues that may arise. What do I do if he is the one behaving disrespectfully? He has been known to pick favorites among his employees. Right now, I’m on his good side but that could easily change. He treats his “least-favorite” employees horribly and unfairly. It creates a toxic work environment for the entire office. But I’m afraid if I bring up his clear favoritism, I’ll jeopardize my place as a “favorite” making my job and experiences working with him unbearable. What should I do?
I’m sorry that you and your colleagues are in this position. There are several ways you might address the issue with him, depending on your relationship with him, and how you assess his interest, ability to hear and address the issue, and picking a time to discuss in which he is most likely to listen. The key is framing it in a way that “speaks” to him so that he’ll listen and be motivated to change the behavior, particularly if his actions aren’t intentional, but rather are impulsive and associated with high emotion.
It may be helpful to approach him as if he were the coach of the team, and you’re letting him know about factors that prevent the team from giving their all. (That is, you are all on the same side and all want to win.)
If it’s safe to assume that, as owner, he is sensitive to financial matters. With that frame, you might talk about either how expensive the turnover is to the company (if people quit because of his behavior). If turnover is an issue, you might suggest that, going forward, someone at the company (not him) do exit interviews to understand why people leave. That would give people leaving the opportunity to be honest (as long as he isn’t writing future letters of recommendation) and convey to him the information that is hurting his company, and that he needs to hear.
Alternatively, you can frame a discussion as wanting to increase either morale or a sense of belonging, which in turn are associated with engagement and increased productivity, team cohesion, and other factors that benefit the bottom line. You want his buy in; if he agrees, you can then provide an (anonymous) survey in which people can talk about factors that bring down morale or are obstacles to belonging and the positive benefits of engagement. You can then present him with the information and suggestions for how to turn things around.
Another possibility is to disrupt the behavior as it is happening. Joan Williams, of the WorkLife Law Center at Hastings Law School, and her colleagues have developed what they call Bias Interrupters: with toolkits for individuals, for teams, and for organizations to address bias and disrespect in the workplace. These include specific actions that you and your colleagues can take individually and collectively.
If many people at the company are willing to act together about their experiences, the risk for each individual may be less. To the extent his actions are intentional, he may think they are effective, not realizing the cost. To the extent that his actions are NOT intentional—they are impulsive in moments of high emotion, it can be harder for him to change.
It’s also possible that despite your best efforts, he’ll run the agency the way he wants to run it. In that case, what typically happens is that people look to quit as soon as they find another job.
Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.