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Radhika Panjwani is a freelance writer from Toronto.

  • Favouritism in the workplace promotes toxicity in organizations, causing competent employees to become demoralized and it increases turnover
  • Employees must keep a regularly updated record of their achievements and bring the prevalence of favouritism to their supervisor’s attention
  • Legal experts suggest companies would be well-advised to have clear and transparent policies regarding conflicts of interest arising from office romance

Favouritism in the workplace can cause competent and hard-working employees to become demoralized and disengaged, and when it’s left unchecked, it can cause irreparable harm to an organization’s reputation, warn a pair of experts.

Favouritism happens when a manager gives preferential treatment or consideration to an employee in terms of opportunities, promotions, raises and hours, that may not necessarily be linked to the worker’s abilities. It can also occur within a project where a member might give a colleague – whom they’re friends with – more relevant tasks.

One other major downside of favouritism is that organizations don’t get the best value for the salary they’re paying the worker. Because merit is not at play, chances are it’s one of the underperformers getting the higher pay, said Helen Ofosu, an Ottawa-based organizational psychologist, career coach and author of How to be resilient in your career: Facing up to barriers at work.

“Favouritism’s a big demotivator,” says Dr. Ofosu. “When people who bring their A game [to work] every day see things that just don’t seem fair, they either stick around and feel resentful or leave and go to a place where they’re appreciated and valued. Favouritism makes the organizational culture more sour.”

Bad romance

People spend a significant amount of time at work, and it would be short-sighted for companies to outlaw romance. However, it may be a good idea for employers to regularly revisit their dating policy and ensure inter-office relationships do not negatively affect the business, said Eduard Matei, legal counsel at Peninsula Canada, a global human resources and health and safety consultancy.

He however cautions companies against enforcing a strict no-dating policy as it can negatively affect employee morale and be counterproductive to maintaining a healthy workplace.

Royal Bank of Canada recently fired two of its senior executives after investigations revealed the chief financial officer had violated the bank’s code of conduct by pursuing a relationship with a vice president in the treasury department and had arranged his promotions and pay raises.

When does office romance become cause for dismissal?

A research article in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s business journal says conflict-of-interest violations stemming from a supervisor and subordinate dating are particularly problematic and are still taboo in the workplace. The article suggests crafting and implementing the right policies to dull the consequences.

“An important component [of a company’s dating policy] is to make sure the policy is transparent and communicated,” writes Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller. “The fairness principle is most important. People [need to] see that whatever happens is fair.”

In Canada, there is no generalized universal workplace policy on dating and relationships as each workplace may set its own policies as they see fit, Mr. Matei says.

“And it’s entirely possible that an employer may go too far in trying to curb office dalliances and inadvertently cross the line into encroaching on protected human rights, especially when attempting to implement any policy that treats different genders differently.”

While a manager and subordinate dating is not legally an issue on its own, it can become prickly when shareholders take issue with the rapid rise of the subordinate over other qualified workers and initiate legal actions on this basis [especially if this relationship was handled in a manner not consistent with the employer’s pre-existing policies], Mr. Matei says.

He suggests employers:

  • Have a clear and consistently enforced [dating] policy.
  • Take care to not confuse consistent enforcement with blind, blanket solutions. And be attentive in dealing with each case on its specific merits and considerations as there’s no one correct universal approach.
  • Deal with each case in a manner that it does not violate any parties’ human rights or other protections.

When you’re not the favoured one

Dr. Ofosu says when employees become aware of favouritism, they should take certain steps. She suggests employees track their accomplishments and keep an unbiased account of their work; ask themselves, what could they be doing differently to get access to the things they have been passed over and finally, broach the issue with the manager.

“Depending on how graphic or bold the favouritism is, it can feel hurtful,” she says. “I have come to understand that whether you’re dealing with the impact of bullying, harassment or discrimination, all of these things create workplace trauma and research that shows these versions of oppression can impact our physical health.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • Does having the “open-to-work” banner on LinkedIn backfire for job applicants? Some experts in this story on CNBC say having the green sign on your profile is a red flag.
  • Even though artificial intelligence can’t produce nuanced writing, it can be used to speed up the content creation process, according to this article in
  • Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg says employee disengagement is treatable. In this article which features insights from her research, Ms. Thompson has several solutions for organizations.

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