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What is Preferential Treatment?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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In many cases, there are laws that discourage employers, landlords, and agencies from openly disqualifying applicants according to race, age, ethnicity, and other criteria. A landlord cannot reject a black applicant's application for an apartment based strictly on his or her race, for example, nor can an employer deny an interview to a 55 year old applicant based on his or her age. That would be considered illegal discriminatory behavior. There are no such laws against a practice known as preferential treatment, however, wherein a person receives a benefit because he or she fits the criteria.

Preferential treatment is sometimes viewed as reverse discrimination, since it rewards someone for being in the "correct" race, gender, economic status, religious affiliation or other category. An employer may not be allowed by law to discriminate against any applicant protected under law, but he or she can still show a preference towards applicants who meet certain unspoken standards. An employer may prefer to work with men instead of women as a rule, or may hire a candidate based on his or her physical attractiveness.

Because such treatment does not often rise to the level of discrimination, it can be very difficult to prove or overcome. It is not illegal in many cases to promote certain employees based on personal preferences alone. If a white employee is promoted over a minority employee based on a perceived work ethic or seniority, for example, it could be construed as preferential treatment but not legal discrimination based on race. This type of treatment can also be translated as a positive form of discrimination, in which a person actually receives better treatment based on his or her gender, race, or age.

Some sources use the controversial practice called affirmative action. Originally designed to counter discriminatory hiring practices, affirmative action programs may actually force employers to hire or promote employees based solely on race. In order to achieve the proper ratio of Caucasian and minority employees, some companies may have to show a preference towards minority applicants. Lawsuits involving charges of ageism or gender bias may also result in some preferential treatment towards applicants who fit that criteria.

Preferential treatment is not strictly illegal under most circumstances, although rejected job applicants or potential renters may believe otherwise. Discrimination laws have helped level the playing field when it comes to fair consideration of an applicant's qualifications, but the people who make the final decisions are not always obligated to base their actions on completely objective criteria. As long as the treatment does not extend into clear discrimination, employers and landlords are typically free to hire or accept the applicants they feel would make the best fit.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to PublicPeople, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon949395 — On May 05, 2014

When was preferential treatment first used(date)?

By anon299063 — On Oct 23, 2012

I used this word, I was waiting in line for a free bike rental for Cyclavia an event out here in LA I was willing more than willing to pay for a bike rental I had a credit card ready along with ID to get a bike rental but was told they were renting them for free but at that time did not have any rentals available to come back in about an hour (I knew about the online registration since I tried to register beforehand but they were out and did advise that you show up at the kiosk on the day of the event) I waited there since I had nowhere to really go they had at least a dozen bikes lined up with no one coming to claim their bike rentals as I waited I noticed they had the African American and Latinos wait while they handed bikes off to the Asians and white people I’m not the type of person to automatically call out preferential treatment but as I waited a few young college white boys arrived inquired were told the same thing and walked away but were automatically called back by one of the rental employees she whispered something into his ear a big grin appeared on his face and he called over three of his friends then two other friends in total 6 guys who just walked up were given bikes that I had already waited a half hour for my boyfriend wanted to get loud and in their face about it but it was my fight and he respected that, I walked up and advised the two other employees that Aron just handed bikes off to six people who just walked up and that I have been waiting a half hour they said they would have a talk with her but as I continued to wait they did it again this time it was a middle age white woman who got a bike by just walking up not only that she like the other guys who showed up after me who were givin the exact same speech to come back in about an hour for others to hear but were walked right up to the bike rentals and were allowed to choose their bikes and not wait like they had me waiting because of the color of my skin? my age? I didn’t fit their “marketing target”? What was it? Finally after a 45min wait and and as they noticed I had been watching them handing off bikes based on “preferential treatment” they called me up and said they had a bike for me they did not allow me to choose a bike but rather handed me the one they wanted and not only once or twice reminded me that I had to be back to return it in less then an hour because by the time a bike was made available for me there was only an hour and a half left before the event was over. Then the more I thought about it the more it hit me how they stressed that their location in “EAST LA” might have more rentals available, sort of like trying to persuade me to go to the “East LA” location for my bike rental.

By igastelu — On Jun 10, 2009

I was recently suspended with pay at work while an accusation that another employee made about me. I found out that he was never suspended while the investigation was on-going. Can this fall under racial discrimination since he was never suspended as he could have easily persuaded others statements?

By anon29466 — On Apr 02, 2009

What is the law on nepotism in the UK i.e. Employing on preferential treatment & knowing the candidate prior to employment?

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick


As a frequent contributor to PublicPeople, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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