Fix My Job: Bad Boss

Does your boss have a pet employee? One who gets the choice work assignments, always gets his/her pick of vacation days, and is first in line when there’s overtime, bonus pay or a promotion to be handed out?

If your answer is “no,” you’re one of a select few. In 2011, the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland surveyed more than 300 U.S. business executives. Ninety-two percent said favoritism occurs in most large organizations, and 84 percent have seen it in their own workplaces.

More than half of the executives surveyed, for example, stated that they already knew who they wanted to promote when a new position came open, and that the preferred candidate got the job more than nine times out of ten.

HR experts say that unfair workplace practices like favoritism are bad news in more ways than one.  Hardworking employees are overlooked, employee morale suffers, and workers no longer trust or respect their managers. None of which is very good for productivity – not to mention your own career and day-to-day sanity in the workplace.

How to handle a boss who plays favorites

First, it’s important to distinguish between workplace favoritism (which is annoying and unfair) and outright discrimination, which is against the law.

Are people from a specific race, religion, gender, or age group always the ones who receive all the perks and promotions in your workplace? If so, your manager may be violating federal and state civil rights laws; see here  for tips on dealing with workplace discrimination.

But if your boss singles out people he or she went to college with, or who like the same football team he or she does, it may be unfair and demoralizing, but it’s probably not against the law.

That doesn’t mean you’re powerless. Unfortunately, when confronted with an office suck-up who is getting all the goodies, the standard advice from a number of self-styled workplace gurus is to make yourself an even better suck-up.

“Make your boss’s life easier…make your boss look good,” offers Brandon Smith, who bills himself as “The Workplace Therapist.” Over at Elle Magazine, E. Jean Carroll suggests that if complimenting your boss’s beautiful new shoes doesn’t work, you can try hating the same restaurants, sports teams, or politicians that your boss hates.

Please. Here at, we’re not especially in favor of creating a nation of brownnosers. Instead, it’s better all around when workers are treated fairly and everyone’s contributions are recognized. Some suggestions for making that happen where you work:

  1. Talk to co-workers: Are you the only one feeling left out of your boss’ good graces? If others are having the same issue, you’ll have more success – and probably stronger legal protections  – when you try to address the issue as a group.
  2. Got a contract? If your workplace is unionized, there’s a good chance your contract spells out procedures for assigning overtime, vacations, pay raises, and promotions based on seniority, training, job qualifications and other objective criteria. If your boss is playing favorites, he or she may be violating your contract; check with your union rep.
  3. Document your own accomplishments: If you feel you’re being unfairly passed over for promotions or better assignments, write down what you’ve done for your company or organization this year. This might range from on-time attendance to getting great evaluations to making money-saving suggestions. This will give you a way to put your best foot forward when it’s time to discuss pay raises and/or promotions.
  4. Talk to your boss: Strange as it may seem, many bosses do not realize the problems they are creating by playing favorites. A nonconfrontational conversation focused on how to make your whole team more effective could be an eye-opener. (Tip: Avoid dumping on the people whom your boss is favoring – he or she likes them, after all!)
  5. Talk to your boss’s boss – or to human resources: If favoritism is really getting out of hand and compromising the ability of everyone else to get their jobs done, it might be time to raise the issue with higher-ups in the organization. Proceed with extreme caution, however. As Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Barbara Moses points out, information provided “in confidence” doesn’t always stay confidential:

I have heard numerous accounts in which the confidence is broken, people side with the manager, and everyone blames the victim.

Useful Links

Survey on workplace favoritism , at McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University

Article: “Does your boss play favourites?” at



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