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Favoritism and Marginalization in the Workplace

Two forms of abuse that seem to be running rampant

Photo by Dreamstime
Source: Photo by Dreamstime

Over the years, we have heard of many incidents and types of workplace abuse and the impact it can have on our colleagues, clients, friends and family.  Although probably not as traumatic as workplace bullying or mobbing, we have seen many instances where favoritism and marginalization can be just as damaging to one’s self-esteem and self-worth.  Favoritism can occur in many different forms in the workplace, from certain favored employees being given coveted assignments, or better work schedules to being given raises and other accolades for which he or she may be undeserving. On the other hand, marginalization occurs when certain employees are treated as invisible, as if they weren’t there or their skills or talents were unwelcome or deemed as unnecessary. Take the following example. 

Jim works as part of a sales team for a software company.  His role is to provide customers with technical information regarding their products and basically to keep customers informed of any new upgrades and product updates.  Susan heads up the sales team and is the point person when it comes to going out and generating sales.  Susan’s sales record has not been stellar until Jim joined her team and customers began responding to his easygoing manner, his grasp of the technical aspects of their products and ability to explain products without coming off as condescending. Sales for Susan’s team began increasing dramatically once Jim became known as the “go-to” person for troubleshooting problems or answering questions at which point, Susan began to marginalize Jim by leaving him out of important sales meetings. Susan had learned just enough buzzwords from Jim that she felt she was capable of explaining technical information to customers. Susan figured she could then take full credit when sales were made. Jim pleaded with Susan to take him on sales calls but she said it was “unnecessary” and not a good use of his time. As all this was taking place, Susan had become the “favorite” of their Sales Manager.  At the end of the year, Susan won the corporation’s Salesperson of the Year award while Jim’s contributions were minimized and he was not acknowledged for his contributions. When Jim voiced his frustrations to their Sales Manager, he suggested that Jim take more steps to “get involved” with the sales team. Jim eventually left the company for a managerial position feeling he was in a no-win situation with Susan and the Sales Manager. As it turned out, his decision to move on was the best move Jim felt he ever made.   

In this example, Susan was clearly the “favorite” of the Sales Manager while Jim was slowly but surely being marginalized at first by Susan and then by his Sales Manager.  It’s not uncommon for marginalized workers to be the work horses of their corporations and departments.  They are often the ones who do the “heavy lifting” by taking on difficult assignments or working extra hours to meet deadlines. Yet, their hard work often goes unnoticed or is taken for granted. You know the expression, “if you want something done, give it to a busy person”.  That’s all well and good, except when that “busy person” is marginalized or treated as invisible.  Favoritism is sometimes difficult to explain. Sometimes it’s based on similarities between the supervisor/manager and the employee (e.g. similar ethnicity, race, gender, age, attractiveness or even things like having similar hobbies, interests or liking certain sports teams). It’s not unusual for older employees to be seen as invisible especially when plum assignments are given to younger employees who are perceived as being more vibrant, energetic or up on the latest technologies. Many older employees report feeling “pushed out” by younger employees or administrators who would like nothing more than to replace a higher paid senior staff members with a younger employees who can be brought in at a lower salaries. Rather than being respected or admired for their devotion to the organization and their accomplishments, the older employee may be seen as an impediment and their seniority/experience often becomes a source of resentment. In a recent book entitled That Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite, that our American “obsession with youth is so extreme that experience has become a liability”. Applewhite finds that although age discrimination is illegal that two thirds of older job seekers encounter it. Just as other types of discrimination robs the workplace of the exchange of diverse views and opinions, so too does age discrimination. Applewhite points out that “Progressive companies know the benefits of workplace diversity. A friend in work force policy calls this the “shoe test”: look under the table, and if everyone’s wearing the same kind of shoes, whether it’s wingtips or flip-flops, you’ve got a problem” (Applewhite, 2016).   But age is not the only factor that contributes to marginalization.  Social psychologists have often found that “in-groups” were often prone to rejecting those whom they considered the “out-group”.  So in that respect, corporations and other work organizations are not unlike high school whereby “mean girls” and “bully boys” who are part of the in-group and take delight in torturing those whom they considered to be the “nerds” or who are part of the “out-group”. 

Is it unrealistic to expect the workplace to be fair and just? Is it better to just go along accepting that things like favoritism and marginalization are going to occur on some level no matter what. 

Dr. Cavaiola is coauthor of Toxic Coworkers. . ., The One-Way Relationship Workbook and Impossible to Please.

To read more on this topic, see

Applewhite, A. (2016). This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, Networked Books,

            Available through amazon.com

Applewhite, A. (2016, September 4) How old are you? We’ll be in touch. New York Times

            Week in Review, pg. 10.

Ferris, D. L., Brown, D. J., Berry, J. W., & Lian, H. (2008). The development and validation of                the

               Workplace Ostracism Scale. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1348-1366 doi:10.1037/a0012743

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