Employee Favoritism: Can You Avoid Legal Backlash?

by annbailey on May 18, 2013

  • SumoMe

Companies use corporate team events to increase morale and facilitate an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation. Unfortunately, it does not always work that way. There are often variations of employee favoritism in team building, and something like being selected last for a sports team, or excluded from the event altogether, is an unpleasant, albeit common, occurrence. When it happens at work, it may result in civil liability unless steps are taken to mollify the injured feelings.

Legal Concerns of Corporate Team Favoritism

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Equal Pay Act of 1963, Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 make it unlawful to discriminate against employees based upon an assortment of protected characteristics. These protected characteristics include such factors as race, religion, sex, age, genetic information, and disability, among others. If an employer violates these statutes, he or she is liable for damages.

Discrimination as used in the aforementioned statutes means harassment based upon a protected characteristic, making employment-related decisions based upon a protected characteristic without a bonafide commercial reason, denial of opportunities based upon a protected characteristic, or retaliation for filing a claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. Employment-related decisions are decisions related to compensation, assignments, benefits, and other employment-related terms and conditions.

What to do about Cries of Foul Play

Federal laws prohibiting discrimination do not mandate general civility and fairness. The law does not require all businesses to always include all coworkers in every team building event. Excluding coworkers from activities that do not affect their employment may annoy the ostracized coworker, but it is generally lawful to do so. To shore up group morale in such an event, however, it is prudent to bring on a life coach who can encourage a disgruntled employee to focus elsewhere.

If the employee feels excluded to the point of believing their work environment has become hostile, intimidating, or threatening, they will have a colorable claim for harassment under the law. However, this is a particularly high burden; petty slights like disqualifying someone from a game generally do not constitute a violation of the law. Most of damage in these situations is to an ego, and coaches are available, particularly in online search sites like noomii.com, to help any employee get beyond their feelings of being slighted and any feelings of litigiousness.

When is it Exclusion?

Issues can arise if work-related stakes are involved in a mandatory corporate event. If the outcome of a particular event could affect one’s employment, including promotional opportunities and gifts, then a person who was excluded from the event based upon his or her protected characteristics may have been unlawfully denied the right to pursue that employment benefit. In such a situation, the injured party may have a claim against the company.

Businesses concerned about the law may consider assigning all team members a session with a life coach before the team building events begin, preparing everyone for the possibility of being asked to “sit this one out.” This type of coaching can go a long way toward building a greater overall morale, while protecting the company from seeds of wrath in the minds of those who perceive they have been slighted. Removing the stakes from the game is also an option. Keeping the team separate from workplace decisions will be prudent. Without employment-related discrimination or pervasive harassment, plaintiffs have little chance of succeeding in a claim.

Whether a particular company’s activities comport with all applicable laws is a matter for the company attorney. Any corporation seeking to prevent employment retaliation actions should consider hiring a life coach to handle personality nuances before they could become issues.

A small business owner and coordinator for numerous events, Ann Bailey lists these concerns for businesses creating morale building teams. Online listings of coaches for all occasions can be found at noomii(dot)com, including those who can prepare employees for team building events as well as those who can repair any possible employee emotional damages resulting from events in which they took part.



Ann Bailey formerly worked in television news and currently writes articles in the arts and law fields.

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