All in the family: Nepotism affects the ability to recruit and retain the best

By Gerd Fiebig
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2001

It’s only recently that nepotism in hiring has taken on negative connotations. Up until the last century, it was assumed that children would take over a family business. From royalty to rug makers, and cattlemen to carpenters, children were expected to adopt the skills of their family trade, and assume these responsibilities when required.

Consider the thoughts of a shopkeeper, whose hard work, long hours and determination has established a small business that has grown to the point of requiring another employee. Are thoughts of hiring a sibling or close relative wrong? If the only person she feels she can rely on is a sister or son, why should it be considered an inappropriate hiring practice?

On the other hand, if those people whom she trusts the most are unqualified, or without the experience necessary to perform the duties required of the position, her business may suffer. Nepotism can also drive away people who could otherwise help your company prosper.

When nepotism has its advantages

It is only natural to want to provide for one’s family, supporting them in their time of need. In fact, it would be unnatural not to want to assist a relative. There are many reasons why actively practising nepotism can function as a positive work experience.

It is well-documented that employees work best when there is some form of internal motivation encouraging them to accomplish their full potential. For human resources professionals, this internal motivation is difficult to nurture, even in star performers. When there is some form of personal and professional accountability, employees are more likely to be internally motivated to do their job well. The supervisor across the office they are reporting to may also be sitting across the table at the next family holiday dinner. This may be a recipe for conflict, or maybe not.

An employee who brings a family member on staff must feel comfortable and positive about the company and its culture. Why else would they ask a relative to join them at work? There could be other motivating factors, but ultimately the reputation of the individual is at stake if the reference does not work out. Therefore, the quality of the reference of family members tends to be greater then that of any other.

Being aware of the corporate culture when initially starting in a company can be very useful. It allows for a quicker adaptation to the norms and standards of the organization, which usually takes a few weeks or even a few months to understand. Establishing a greater level of comfort early on results in a less daunting learning curve, and ultimately a more productive employee. This results in less training time, and saving money and resources that are normally incurred.

The darker side of nepotism

Despite the positive advantages of hiring your daughter, mother or long lost cousin, there are many factors that contribute to the inappropriateness of nepotism in the hiring process.

Times have changed since the era of royalty and rug makers, cattlemen and carpenters. Obviously these jobs still do exist, but consider the realities of today’s work world.

People are working for large corporations with many different layers of organizational hierarchy. The creation of middle management adds new dimensions to the workforce, different than the owner-employee relationships that were previously dominated. As a result of the sheer size of companies, and these added relationships, employee management has become a challenge even in situations where nepotism is not present.

The first problem that arises is in assuring an equal and fair opportunity for all candidates to attain a job. This is not only a factor when considering an outside candidate, but also a current employee with a desire to apply for a more senior position. Being aware that there is no potential for advancement as a result of nepotism can be very demoralizing for an otherwise qualified and eager candidate.

With the current state of the economy, qualified candidates are not easy to locate. If an appropriate applicant is identified, the candidate should be recruited immediately. Overlooking someone with the desired skill set, knowledge or experience in favour of a lesser qualified family member is not in keeping the best interests of a company.

Nepotism can put a positive corporate culture at risk. In a situation where a manager has to supervise a relative, there are many relationships to nurture, and as a result many opportunities for conflict.

It becomes too easy for an issue in one relationship to affect another, often creating tension not just among the individuals in question, but also in their fellow co-workers.

Often nepotism can cloud management decisions. Supervising or managing an employee who’s directly related to a member of the executive team or upper management is a common and difficult experience. Although the situation is usually approached with an attitude of equality and fairness for all, it is often not the case. If a situation were to arise that some form of discipline or even termination had to occur, the results would vary. At the very least, the supervisor may not actually treat the individual differently, but often struggle in doing so, cause unnecessary stress.

Choose prospective

people wisely

Nepotism has an appropriate time and place. Owners of small business often use their family as a resource because of the easy accessibility. In larger corporations, nepotism is not a justifiable hiring practice.

Human resources professionals must constantly evaluate policies to ensure they are consistent with meeting the goals and objectives of an organization. Ensuring these are met, along with being sensitive to the work environment, are the only tools available in deciding whether or not to use nepotism in the hiring process.

Gerd Fiebig is a project analyst with Toronto-based RJ Professionals, a management consulting firm specializing in recruitment and retention. He may be contacted at (416) 363-7197, ext. 230.

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