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It's all about who you know ... or is it?


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

In the US version of <i>The Office</i>, Steve Carell's character cops flak for hiring his incompetent nephew. He says ...

In the US version of The Office, Steve Carell's character cops flak for hiring his incompetent nephew. He says it's an act of 'reverse nepotism'.

In an ideal world, the best candidate would get the best job. But in the real world, it’s not uncommon for the best job to go to the best mate. Or the close relative. It happens a lot in family-owned businesses, but really, few workplaces are immune.

Do you favour friends and family over other job applicants? Have your say.

From a morale point of view, advocates of nepotism believe staff satisfaction is higher when people work with family and friends. 

Some people think it’s a good thing. From a financial point of view, they save on recruitment costs. From a morale point of view, advocates of nepotism believe staff satisfaction is higher when people work with family and friends. That’s one reason why so many organisations give cash rewards (sometimes up to $1000) to employees who refer friends and family for job vacancies.

In the book In Praise of Nepotism, Adam Bellow differentiates between 'Old Nepotism' and 'New Nepotism'. He says the old version was coercive. Parents forced their kids to take over the reins and groomed them to do so from a young age. 

But the new form of nepotism comes from the bottom up. It is children themselves seeking to leverage their family’s name, contacts, and wealth, and when they become the anointed successor, they then set out to prove their merit. Adam Bellow is convinced this is a “wholesome” and “positive” trend. He refers to it as ‘meritocratic nepotism’, which is effective when:

  1. The protégé’s actions don’t embarrass the patron
  2. The protégé works harder than anyone else
  3. The protégé similarly practices nepotism in the workplace

The truth, though, is that organisations that allow nepotism to occur end up with a culture where no one really trusts each other. Fairness becomes inferior to favouritism. Talent at the job is deemed to be of lesser importance than talent at cultivating the right connections. A toxic work environment ensues.

But here’s where the situation becomes tricky. What happens when the best person for the job – the employee most suitable for a promotion – also happens to be the boss’ best friend or relative? How can the worthy appointment be portrayed as anything but nepotism?

Robert Jones is a professor of psychology at Missouri State University and the author of Nepotism in Organisations. He told me the answer “falls back on basic moral philosophy and ethical personnel practice.” And that is: transparency. When leaders follow a transparent process – a process developed and implemented by all stakeholders – promotional decisions are less likely to be perceived as nepotism.

“In this way, the rationale for how the decision was made will be clear to everyone who will need to work with the person once they're hired,” he says.

Neal Ashkanasy agrees. He’s a professor of management at the University of Queensland and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Organisational Behaviour. “The key here is to set up a visible culture of transparency at the outset, so all stakeholders can be completely confident that appropriate procedures are in place,” he says. But such fair and merit-based procedures “can take a long time to establish.”

Many organisations are in the abyss – that dark place where transparency is lacking. The way recruitment decisions are made is unclear. The criteria for determining who gets a job aren’t stipulated. And when someone gets a promotion, sufficient feedback isn’t given to those who missed out. 

If that type of anti-transparent environment is present, Professor Ashkanasy believes the best friend or family member should be disqualified from getting the job – even if that person is the best one for it. The first step for leaders should be to develop the transparent culture. Only then can they promote someone with the confidence there won’t be accusations of nepotism.

The situation is always worse, of course, when the act of nepotism results in a totally inept person getting the coveted job. If the privileged candidate happens to be brilliant, it’s easier for colleagues to accept it over time. But when the ‘winner’ ends up being a hopeless tragic, it just magnifies the unfairness.

There’s a great scene in the American version of The Office in which Michael, the manager, hires his nephew – his utterly incompetent nephew – as an intern. When trying to justify this act of nepotism to his employees, Michael brings up the concept of “reverse nepotism”. Why should his nephew be discriminated against just because he’s related to the boss?

It’s a decent argument, actually, but then he ruins it with this example: “God. When he needed help here on Earth, who did he hire? Jesus Christ. His son.”

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

6 comments so far

  • Nearly all of the organisations i have worked for over the last 15 years have been medium sized family businesses where family members, sons, daughters, nieces nephews, even girlfriends and mistresses made up the management team.

    Granted, some have been very capable, but occasionally you find one who has been riding in on their family connections their entire career. You may get a foot in the door due to your name, but those who walk into a senior role due to family connections shouldn't expect any respect from the worker bees until they prove their worth.

    Date and time
    January 27, 2012, 2:46PM
    • Certainly helps to know the right people when if you're looking for work in a country town.

      somewhere in oz
      Date and time
      January 27, 2012, 8:53PM
      • Nepotism may work in some situations favourably, but when it denies another person of equal/better credentials- it's not on.
        Our local hospital is a definite case of point. Positions have even been created for family. This is taxpayers money spent at whim.
        One daughter in particular who had already received a redundancy from the hospital a few years prior to pursue a private business enterprise, was reinstated as the new fax operator later on! Go figure. No doubt a fax operator is almost redundant now, so I'm not sure what her job description is currently, but she's still employed by daddy the CEO amongst a multitude of other family members with their snouts permanently in the trough.
        Private enterprise I can cope with, but when it's a public hospital/health service?

        emma peel
        Date and time
        January 28, 2012, 5:30AM
        • Personally, my business will never hire friends or family unless they are the best people for the job, I have worked in SMB who has done so and my observations is that it doesn't work.

          This being said, I have made friends in some roles where I would hire them in a second should they become available.

          Date and time
          January 30, 2012, 5:53AM
          • Depending what sort of business, when a business model function based on systematic process then nepotism will never work.

            But for a small catering business or restaurant, why not? In fact probably saved alot in wages!

            Date and time
            January 31, 2012, 6:11PM
            • We are alll animals in many ways and the 'who you know' is generaly the preferred option among family owned businesses. In many cases it applies to large Corporations as well - especially were promotions are concerned. However, if you have exceptional skills that you can bring and make the organisation productive, I would say, it would overide all else.

              Date and time
              February 02, 2012, 4:51PM

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