Favoritism happens when managers dole out the benefits based on who they like, rather than who is doing the best job for the company. It can be very frustrating to work for a company that allows favoritism to flourish. Favoritism hurts morale, diminishes performance and productivity, and leads to lower retention rates, as employees whose good work goes unrecognized decide to move on to better opportunities.
It's clear that favoritism is bad management, but is it illegal? The answer depends on why certain employers are being favored (or disfavored). The law doesn't prohibit poor management practices or general unfairness. However, favoritism can cross the line into discrimination, harassment, or other illegal behavior. And, favoritism might violate company policies or employment contracts. In any of these situations, an employee might be able to sue for favoritism.
For more information on workplace favoritism, including its legality, see our article Favoritism in the Workplace.
If a manager's favoritism is based on a protected characteristic, such as race, sex, or religion, that might constitute illegal discrimination. For example, if a manager refuses to promote Latino employees or gives plum assignments to younger workers only, employees may be able to sue for discrimination.
Similarly, if a manager bestows favors on employees who are willing to put up with or acquiesce to his sexual advances, that is a form of sexual harassment. Employees who put up with the harassing behavior and get the benefits may have a valid harassment claim. And, employees who don't get the benefits and either refuse to put up with the harassment or aren't subjected to it directly may also have a valid claim, because their job opportunities are suffering as a result of harassment.
Favoritism might violate laws that prohibit retaliation, too. For example, if a manager gave prize assignments only to employees who oppose a union organizing drive or only to employees who haven't joined a wage and hour lawsuit against the company, that might also be illegal. Many workers' rights laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the laws, by making an internal complaint, filing a charge with a government agency, or filing a lawsuit. If a manager disfavors employees for these reasons, it could constitute illegal retaliation.
Favoritism may also violate company policies. For example, if the employee handbook promises certain benefits or establishes a method for determining who will receive promotions or raises, a manager who plays favorites and doesn't follow those rules could open the company up to a lawsuit. In some situations, courts have found that a company's handbook and other written policies create a contract, which the employer must follow or risk getting sued for breach of contract.
An employee's own contract may also provide grounds for a lawsuit. For example, if an employee has a written contract stating that the employee can be fired only for good cause, but the employee is fired so a manager may install his college roommate or girlfriend in the position, that act of favoritism violates the employee's contract.
If you believe you have been a victim of workplace favoritism, you might want to consult with an employment lawyer. Whether favoritism provides grounds for a lawsuit depends on the facts of your case, including who was favored, who was not, and why. An experienced lawyer can assess whether you have any claims against your employer, and how best to protect your rights.