Is Racial Favoritism Legal at Work?

Race Discrimination

You’re probably already well aware that an employer can’t discriminate against you because of your race. But what happens if the racial discrimination doesn’t take the form of an adverse employment action but instead involves treating another employer better than you because of their race?

The short answer is that such behavior is largely illegal under federal and most state laws. Employment favoritism, or preferential treatment, is not automatically illegal. But if it’s based on someone’s inclusion or exclusion from a protected class (such as race), then it’s almost always going to be illegal.

Overview of Anti-Discrimination Employment Law

There are a host of various federal laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on a protected trait or class. These are certain characteristics of an individual that laws will explicitly protect from discrimination. Some of these include:

Some states have also passed their own laws to provide greater protections against discrimination. For example, in Washington, D.C., the DC Human Rights Act’s (DCHRA) age discrimination protections apply to anyone 18 years of age or older. It’s also illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on the employee’s political affiliation or family caretaking responsibilities.

When discrimination based on these traits occurs in the workplace, it’s usually adverse to the employee. For instance, a boss decides not to promote a female employee because she’s pregnant. Or a hiring manager decides to fire an employee that’s 60 years old to get some “new blood” into the company.

But what happens if, instead of taking adverse action against the employee because of a protected trait, they show favoritism to someone because they possess (or lack) a particular trait? It all depends on what that trait is.

Preferential Treatment in the Workplace

Favoritism and workplace preferences are perfectly legal, as long as they’re based on characteristics not protected by law (like those listed above). So if your colleague gets a larger annual bonus than everyone else because she graduated from the same college as your boss, that’s legal. It might be unfair and a poor business decision, but it’s not against the law.

But that same decision involving the annual bonus that went to your colleague is now being made because she’s a woman? That’s almost always going to be illegal assuming the employer is subject to applicable law. Certain employers, such as those of a certain size, aren’t always subject to anti-discrimination employment laws. As a case in point, the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) only applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

Summing It Up

Favoritism at work is legal, unless it’s based on an employee’s inclusion or exclusion of a protected group. These are protected classes and are identified by various state and federal anti-discrimination laws.