Nepotism at Work: Does Your Job Pick Favorites?

Businessman hand pointing at a figure

Boss picking a favorite employee | Source: iStock

Your boss promotes his incompetent nephew, even though he’s clearly not management material. The company owner’s 20-something daughter gets a private office, but almost every other employee works in a cube. Your co-workers who are chummy with management always get the plum assignments, while others are stuck with busywork. Favoritism rears its ugly head in many offices, and as an employee, there’s not a lot you can do about it. Nepotism at work may be unfair, but it’s not exactly illegal.

Employees may cry foul, but companies are free to favor relatives or friends when hiring or promoting, providing they’re not breaking any other laws. If workplace favoritism extends to discriminating against an employee because of their religion, race, gender or certain other factors, though, it could be grounds for a lawsuit. Government employees are also generally barred from favoring relatives when hiring, and public companies have to disclose conflicts of interest, like hiring relatives, to shareholders, but the practice isn’t illegal.

Legality aside, office favoritism can contribute to a toxic work culture, especially if it means people who lack skills are getting perks and benefits others lack. But working your network is also an accepted way to get ahead. Parents use their connections to get their kids coveted internships, friends refer friends for open positions, and bosses hire former colleagues and promote their favorite employees. Many career experts suggest the best way to find a job is through these “hidden” channels, rather than public job postings.

“People enjoy working with friends, which often inadvertently turns into favoritism,” career expert Ryan Kahn, the author of Hired! The Guide for the Recent Grad, told Forbes. “It can start as something as simple as being included on a lunch outing where business is discussed and may lead to something much more substantial, like getting salary and promotional benefits. Wanting to work with people you like is fine, as long as it is fair to other employees.”

How can you tell when favoritism has crossed the line from simply helping out friends and family to grossly unfair? What’s the difference between rewarding a high-performing employee and letting a slacker coast by? It can sometimes be hard to spot true nepotism at work, but here are four signs your people at your job play favorites, and what you can do about it.

1. Rules are enforced inconsistently

boss in a meeting with employees

Boss talking to employees in a meeting | Source: iStock

Bosses may play favorites by turning a blind eye to dress code violations, looking the other way when an employee shows up late, or ignoring the time someone spends on personal phone calls at work. Meanwhile, other employees are chided – or even fired — when they break the rules. The unequal treatment can be tough to swallow, and difficult to address.

What to do about it: Bring up the inconsistent treatment with your boss, and if necessary, with human resources. Uneven enforcement of company policies can lead to legal headaches down the road, according to the Society of Human Resource Management, and many HR departments will want to put a stop to unfair treatment as soon as possible.

2. You’re not in the inner circle

If your boss turns to favored employees when he has an important project to complete or doesn’t invite you to key meetings, you could be dealing with favoritism. For whatever reason, your manager trusts these other employees more than you. Being excluded from the inner circle can make it tough to get ahead, but you can overcome this career hurdle.

What to do about it: Do whatever you can to make your boss’s job easier. Find out what’s important to her (or her boss) and do whatever you can to help her achieve her goals. “If you can better understand your boss’s top three agenda items and help them achieve one of those, they will tend to nudge you toward the favorites category,” Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University, told the BBC. You can also try to make friends with your boss’s favorite employees. Praise from them may be enough to get you into the office clique.

3. Your boss blurs professional and personal boundaries

coworkers at happy hour

Co-workers at happy hour | Source: iStock

Does your boss have weekly lunch dates with some people he manages, but not others? Are invitations to after-work happy hours only handed out to an elite few? While there’s nothing wrong with being friendly with people you work with, office cliques can breed bad feelings, especially if work business is being discussed at these out-of-office gatherings.

What to do about it: Not being part of the in-crowd at work is tough, and studies have shown that it can even encourage people to undermine their colleagues, cheat, and engage in other unsavory behavior. Rather that resorting to backstabbing, try to take the high road. Do what you can to put yourself forward, from volunteering for assignments to asking your boss out to lunch. And evaluate your own behavior. Always hiding in your office or behind a screen may send the message that you don’t want to socialize or be disturbed. “If you aren’t visible, then you won’t reach your full potential because no one will know what your capable of,” Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success, told Glamour.

4. You’re getting perks you don’t deserve

Favoritism cuts both ways. Being the boss’s pet can be good for your career if it means better assignments and faster promotions, but it can have a negative side as well. If your co-workers think you’re getting ahead because you’re friends with the boss, not because you’re a good worker, your relationship with them can suffer.

What to do about it: Sharing credit for your success, recommending co-workers for choice projects, and declining obvious benefits of favoritism can help smooth over your co-worker’s ruffled feathers and sends the message you’re still part of the team. “You don’t want to be ostracized by your team any more than they want to be ostracized by the boss, or you’ll ultimately fail,” Lynn Taylor, a career expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, told Forbes.

Follow Megan on Facebook and Twitter

More from Money & Career Cheat Sheet: