Workplace attitudes vary enormously around the world but few subjects provoke more debate than that of nepotism.
With its roots in Latin (nepos/nephew, grandson), it was originally the practice of granting privileges to a pope’s ‘nephew’, a euphemism for an illegitimate son.
Today, the word means favouritism shown to relatives (and sometimes friends), especially in appointment to high office and sometimes ahead of those who may be better qualified. It’s the opposite of meritocracy which holds that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent.
Nepotism exists in large organisations such as the Murdoch empire and Santander, while one in five UK MPs employ family members. In American politics, its common. Think of the Kennedys, the Bush family, the Clintons…
In some cultures, nepotism is reviled, in others it’s tolerated but seen as unethical and in many countries, the practice is regarded as legitimate and it’s commonplace.
The United States offers a mixed message because, while the US has always valued merit in the workplace, and nepotism is viewed as unethical by many, 40% of Fortune 500 firms, and 90% of companies overall, are family-owned or -controlled, with these companies accounting for half of the US gross domestic product (US Bureau of the Census).
Meanwhile, in the Arab world as well as Asia and South America, nepotism is common. In a 2011 Bloomberg Business article, Adam Bellow, author of in Praise of Nepotism, a study of the history of patronage, is quoted as saying that the prevalence of nepotism in Arab countries “is an outgrowth of an old, clan-based tribal system that is common in all societies transitioning to modernity – basically, anywhere outside of the developed, modern West.”
Without democratic institutions and well-developed markets, Bellow believes that nepotism is a necessary and generally accepted evil.
In Japan, nepotism is common but there is a willingness to fire incompetent family members, while in Italy, it was made technically illegal in 2008 although there have been no prosecutions.
Aside from the ethics of the practice, does nepotism work?
In some ways, yes. It can bolster confidence in a company because it can encourage loyalty, continuity and promote unified familial values. A company that employs family members but also works professionally, is much more likely to thrive. Techniques such as encouraging early work experience in other companies before joining the family firm, offering training, a set pay structure and performance expectations, promoting good communication with all employees and stops favouritism, all help to overcome in-built problems associated with employing relatives.
According to a study by Debrett’s, seven in every ten young Britons use family connections to get their first foot on the career ladder.
CEO, Joanne Milner, says Debrett’s has long “celebrated the development of a more meritocratic and diverse society”, and is “uniquely placed to promote a level playing field for all. We don’t want Intern Britain to have a negative impact on the diversity of future leaders and people of achievement in this country,” she said.
However, it doesn’t look as if keeping it in the family, even in the modern, western world of work, is falling out of fashion despite nepotism being a sensitive issue.