When managers play “favorites,” the non-favored often feel mistreated and disrespected. That is especially so when the favoritism is not based on merit (work product or ethics), but on a personal relationship. That’s one of many reasons why managers should never be in a direct reporting relationship with a romantic interest. Favoritism claims have been raised in the courts before, often with very little success. A recent Tenth Circuit case aligns with the majority of opinions on the issue.
In Clark v. Cache Valley Electric Company, a male project manager sued for sex discrimination when his female colleague allegedly received better assignments and more bonuses. The better treatment, according to his complaint, was based on her romantic relationship with their supervisor. Rejecting the claim, the court held this favoritism alone did not present any evidence of discrimination: “favoritism of a paramour is not gender discrimination.”
I’ve seen a least one other court go the other way on this issue (yes, it was a California case), but the Clark decision represents the majority view. Does this mean managers should be free to play favorites? Absolutely not.
Favoritism in the workplace erodes trust and creates negativity. Even if it does not run afoul of the employment laws, it is certainly not a “best practice.” Managers should be trained to apply consistent treatment across the board, unless there are legitimate business reasons for differential treatment. Not just to avoid lawsuits and liability, but to create a workplace where employees perceive that fairness prevails.