Playing Favorites

There is some evidence that many leaders have favorites — and more importantly — treat favored employees differently. A study involving 303 U.S. executives found that more than half (56 percent) of them admitted to having a favorite candidate when making internal promotion decisions. Around 96 percent of them will promote their favorites rather than considering the candidates’ important job-related abilities.[1]

Similarly, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board[2] survey revealed that 25 percent of American federal employees believe their supervisor practices favoritism, more than 50 percent suspected that other supervisors in their organization practice favoritism and 30 percent of human resources management staff agreed that favoritism occurs in the organizations they serve.

Leaders play favorites at work for various reasons. Some leaders practice favoritism to strategically maximize their self-interest; they adopt favoritism to seek their personal interests or the interests of a friend or family member.[3] Or they use favoritism as a tool to manipulate and control situations by deliberately favoring some employees over others to gain loyalty and centralize power.[4] These types of favoritism are typically deemed unethical — even illegal in extreme cases. But some other leaders may be seen as playing favorites simply because they have more in common with some employees than they do with the others, or they simply like some employees more than others. Subordinates may feel their leaders are exhibiting favoritism because their supervisor hangs out with one of the other employees more often or praises a certain individual and nobody else.

The consequences of favoritism are numerous. Employees have not only deemed favoritism as a form a workplace injustice/unfairness, but they have also reacted to favoritism behaviors with negative emotions toward the organization, and felt less loyalty to the company, less job satisfaction, stronger intentions to quit the job, less work motivation and more emotional exhaustion. Subordinates who perceived higher degrees of favoritism also reported having poor work relationships with their leaders. They received less recognition and professional help, such as mentoring and coaching from the supervisor. They also received less support at work and had less trust toward their supervisor.

Are favored employees happy? The author found in a study of hers that the favored employees may also be victims to a certain extent. They felt pressure from their peers for receiving better treatment, frequently perceived conflicts initiated by coworkers — likely due to envy —  and therefore exhibited higher levels of emotional exhaustion and expressed greater intentions of quitting.

Thus, playing favorites is a dangerous game.

If you are interested in knowing more about the danger of workplace favoritism, as well as what organizational factors can lead to more workplace favoritism, click HERE for a research white paper by the author.

[1] Reinsch, N.L., & Gardner, J. (2014). Do communication abilities affect promotion decisions? Some data from the c-suite. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 28, 31-57.

[2] U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. (2013, December). Preserving the integrity of the federal merit systems: Understanding and addressing perceptions of favoritism. Retrieved from:….

[3] Cropanzano, R., Howes, J. C., Grandey, A. A., & Toth, P. (1997). The relationship of organizational politics and support to work behaviors, attitudes, and stress. Journal of Organizational Behavior18, 159-180.

[4] Blase, J. J. (1988). The politics of favoritism: A qualitative analysis of the teachers’ perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 24, 152-177.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.