Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Playing Favorites as a Manager

Who Are The Favorites At Your Work? 

President Lyndon Johnson’s comment applies to the way some managers treat employees:

“There are no favorites in my office. I treat everyone with the same general inconsideration.”

Most other managers have to work at not seeming to favor one or two employees over others. Sometimes there are no favored employees but there are employees who are definitely out of favor and that is even more of a challenge.

What makes favorites?

  • Some people are just more pleasant to be around than others. These employees are often favorites with employees at all levels.
  • When the employee and the manager have things in common outside of work, there is a tendency to gravitate to that employee for conversation.
  • If a supervisor or manager has had a long and positive history with one or two employees there tends to be a connection and loyalty.
  • Some employees have proven themselves to be more dependable, trustworthy and skillful than others, so it’s logical for the manager to seek their thoughts first.
  • Some employees have ingratiated themselves to managers by being a source of information about employees or by saying what the manager wants to hear. Sometimes there are inappropriate personal relationships.

Even if every employee is equally competent and pleasant and there are no nefarious circumstances, a supervisor or manager will probably have an affinity for one or two employees over others because of shared work experiences, similar communication styles or for some other reason. (The same thing applies to coworkers.)

How is it shown? Usually it’s very obvious who the favorites are at work. Sometimes its not a cause for conflict, but carried to extreme it nearly always is. That’s why supervisors and managers need to avoid the actions that send that message:

  • Frequent lunches or breaks with the favored employee and rarely with anyone else.
  • More conversations, laughing and personal talk.
  • Spending time together away from work.
  • The favored person is often seen in the boss’s office, apparently only chatting or talking about non-work issues. 
  • The favored person seems to have more influence and is given rewards in assignments, working conditions or other perks.
  • When the favorite makes a mistake the manager accepts excuses more easily than he or she would from others.

What is the result? The more someone is treated as a favorite and someone else is not, the more likely it is that the individuals involved will do things to reinforce the manger’s feelings. There are other negative results as well:

  • It becomes a source of gossip and speculation, which detracts from the focus on work.
  • Sometime the favored person is rejected by coworkers.
  • Sometimes the unfavored person is pushed out even more by coworkers because they sense the weakened situation.
  • The favored employee often is able to get by with things that others would not.
  • If an employee feels rejected or pushed out by the manager, it can cause anger, frustration or depression. It can create stress and lead to many emotional, health and work problems. Any existing problems will probably get worse.
  • It weakens the reputation and leadership of the manager or supervisor to be seen as playing favorites.

How can a manager or supervisor avoid the appearance of favoritism?

  • Be purposeful about communications at work.  Ensure that you have a mix of conversations with everyone. Don’t make it all fun with one employee and all unpleasant work topics with another.
  • Rotate through all employees for going to coffee or lunch or taking them along to meetings. Go with two employees at a time if you can’t bring yourself to spend half an hour alone with Greg the Griper.
  • Watch the non-verbal communication. If you smile at Laura every time you see her, but keep walking when you see Karen, it will be noticed. If you defer to Bob in meetings but usually read your notes when Bill is talking, that will be noticed too.
  • Ask for another opinion when making decisions that you know might appear to be for a favored employee or long-time friend or against a non-favored person. Seeking another opinion is a documentable action that can be very helpful if there are questions about your decision.

The bottom line: Every workplace is different, so what indicates favoritism in one may not be the same as in another. How to avoid it and fix it may vary as well. The point is to not let your bias toward or against any employee or group of employees be obvious.

You may not feel the same way about all employees; you may have very good reasons for having more positive feelings about one than another; you may not be able to conceal your personal preferences completely. But, it’s wrong and harmful to the workplace to give the impression that you have your own personal caste sytem.

March 25th, 2011 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Service to Customers, Clients and Coworkers, Supervision and Management | 5 comments


  1. I have to watch this all the time because I work with my two best friends! I’m not a supervisor, but it still can be a problem if it seems like we’re our own little club at work. The three of us have agreed that we won’t let our friendship get in the way of working with everyone but it’s hard because we always get along and the others are always fighting!

    Comment by Fatima | March 27, 2011

  2. Hi! Been gone so no comments. As you know, this was a BIG problem for us until we got our new manager. The other person and two special employees practically lived together at work. Everything you describe, he did. He ended up losing his job over protecting his favorites. After he left, one of those quit and the other tried the same thing with the replacement, but no luck, so she quit too. We don’t miss them!

    Comment by Mike | March 27, 2011

  3. We have this exact problem in our office. The manager is close to a couple of people (they all worked together before coming to our dept) and they are frequently going on breaks and lunch together, chatting about personal stuff, having lunch together on the weekends. Whereas it appears that everyone else has to apologize profusely and repent for making the simplest mistake, errors made by herself or the two “favorites” are just ignored or glossed over.

    A coworker (a mutual friend) tried to talk to the manager about it and the manager just said “so, what, I can’t have any friends?”). It’s not that managers or supervisors can’t have friends – and I agree that some people just get along better – but then a manager should try to be fair despite his/her personal relationships with certain employees. One of my previous supervisors had high praise for me and preferred me over my coworker, but my supervisor was fair and balanced. We didn’t spend time gossiping about my coworker, or other colleagues.

    Honestly, I don’t think the rest of us want to be part of the manager’s “inner circle” – we don’t need (or want) to go to lunch with her. She can continue to hang out with her favorites – that’s fine. She just needs to behave professionally when it comes to critiquing the staff and also cut down on the chit chat at work (because it’s clear to everyone – even people just passing by – that they are close friends).

    Comment by Cassie | March 30, 2011

  4. Tina says: Fatima and Mike–I appreciate both of our comments and have written you a note.

    Cassie, you’re very correct that most of the time people understand friendships, they just don’t want it to be obvious that one or two people are always going to be viewed more positively. I wish your managers higher level manager would notice and do something about that! Thanks for commenting–I always enjoy your real-life examples!

    Comment by TLR | April 2, 2011

  5. I totally disagree with this article. My boss (name deleted by Tina!) went on vacation with me for a week to Colombia. We had a great time. Even though I knew him before he hired me as a senior employee with no experience in the field I was hired into, I believe it is a great motivator for the rest of the group. There’s even several of us that go to lunch regularly with him. Sure the other half of employees that were at the company before us are never invited, but there’s no reason to think there’s any preferential treatment going on. Especially when their evaluations only got knocked down AFTER he became boss. Before that, they were great employees. It’s clear that THEY are the problem, and not him.

    Comment by CP | April 14, 2011

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