Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Is Nepotism a Good Thing, or Bad?

What do employees think when a relative of the boss gets hired or promoted?

Did you know that the origin of the term “nepotism” comes from Catholic bishops who would bequeath wealth, property, and priesthood to their “nephews?” The nephews were usually their illegitimate offspring, and it served as a way for church clergy to both own property and to retain power in their families.

Today, we use nepotism to refer to the hiring or promotion of a family member (including in-laws), and it smacks of favoritism. Indeed, the hiring of relatives in some companies is forbidden by company policy. However, in family-owned businesses, nepotism is often viewed as natural and expected. So, the big question is whether nepotism in business is a good or a bad thing? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

Nepotism can have advantages and disadvantages. For example, hiring relatives is easy and can lead to greater trust (what we call “swift trust”) if the relations get along and share a common purpose. Where nepotism becomes problematic is when non-relative employees feel that there is unfair favoritism, and when relatives are hired over more competent non-relatives. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on nepotism in the workplace.

Our research program is among the first investigating people’s perceptions of nepotistic practices in the workplace. For example, we have found that there are individual differences in perceptions of nepotism, with some people being accepting of nepotistic practices – thinking it is perfectly fine to have preferential treatment of relatives (“well, she is the boss’s daughter…”), and others completely rejecting of any sort of favoritism.

What we are finding, however, is that people tend to believe that there is favoritism whenever a relative is hired, regardless of whether they tolerate nepotism or not. Even when a relative is the most qualified person for the job, coworkers tend to believe that it was their family relationship, rather than their qualifications, that got the person the job.

What we intend to examine next is the impact that perceptions of nepotism may have on employee performance, motivation, and decisions to stay with the company. Stay tuned for future posts.

References

Bellow, A. (2003).  In praise of nepotism: A natural history. New York: Doubleday.

Jones, R.G.(Ed.), (2012).  Nepotism in Organizations.  New York: Routledge.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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