Growth Trends for Related Jobs

How to Deal With Employee Complaints on Preferential Treatment

careertrend article image
Hemera Technologies/ Images

Children aren’t the only ones who complain about siblings or classmates getting preferential treatment. Adults in the workplace make the same accusation when the boss promotes a colleague with an “inside track” or OKs prime vacation time mostly for staff with children. The problem becomes even more serious when employees believe they are being passed over for a promotion, denied a raise or subjected to more scrutiny than a co-worker because of their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.


Single and childless employees report feeling saddled with extra work when co-workers with children take time off for family obligations. A 1996 Personnel Journal survey showed that 81 percent of the respondents agreed that single workers without children carried much of the responsibility in the workplace. The same percentage also agreed that employers don’t consider the needs of single, childless workers. The problem might stem from employers “bending over backward” to adopt family-friendly policies that accommodate working mothers. But even single, childless men claim that they are being shortchanged at work because of their status, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Employers can avoid inequities between single, childless employees and married workers with children by evaluating how benefits and policies are handled. Changing the name of work-balance programs from “work-family” to “work-life” is a starter. Another is not assuming that only married employees with children need family medical leave; singles often are major caregivers for aging parents and other relatives. If telecommuting is a benefit, offer it on the basis of who can handle working at home and not on lifestyle.


Hiring, promoting and showing other forms of preferential treatment toward relatives, close friends or paramours is nepotism. Problems occur when nepotism lowers morale and productivity. Employees have less incentive to perform their jobs well when they think promotions or pay raises are based on personal relationships with the boss. Companies risk losing valued workers as a result.

Employers with no tolerance for nepotism have antinepotism policies or antifraternization codes of conduct. Some policies prohibit hiring employees’ relatives. Other policies forbid hiring relatives only if a family member would report directly or indirectly to another. Antifraternization policies usually forbid dating in the workplace. Employers also keep nepotism in check by requiring employees to sign conflict-of-interest forms that reveal whether they made any decisions that would directly benefit a relative or personal friend.


Managers show favoritism by granting certain employees privileges and benefits over equally deserving co-workers. Employees complain, often privately, about the boss’s favorites getting plum assignments, pay raises, promotions and more courteous treatment overall. Resentment keeps workers who feel slighted from being productive. They often leave a job they like to work for a company that values good performance.

Marshall Goldsmith, Ph,D.,an executive educator and coach, says that favorites often earn their status by being sycophants to the boss. In an article he wrote for the “Harvard Business Review,” titled, “Teach Yourself to Avoid Favoritism,” he challenges managers to think about why they favor certain employees. Is the reason based on work quality or loyalty? He recommends that managers monitor their own behavior so that they recognize employees’ contributions to the company, rather than favor personal loyalty or friendship.


Managers who deny employees pay raises, promotions and other opportunities for advancement because of race, gender, color, national origin or religion are violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Federal law also protects workers against discrimination based on age and physical disability. Employees who believe they are being targeted perceive other workers as a favored group. They might file complaints with human resources or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces antidiscrimination laws and reviews and investigates cases.

Employers can provide workers with some protection against discrimination with a zero-tolerance policy. Hanging mandatory antidiscrimination posters in common work areas and including notices on websites and in employment ads enforces the policy. Surveying employees annually about workplace practices is a way to test the policy’s effectiveness.


Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.

Photo Credits

Hemera Technologies/ Images