Nepotism in the Workplace – 8 Things to Consider

In the movie “Tommy Boy,” the owner of an auto parts factory gives his dim-witted son (played by Chris Farley) a plush job even though he just graduated college–barely. The owner’s right-hand man (played by David Spade) doesn’t approve. When Spade’s character sees Tommy’s new office, he sarcastically quips: “You have a window. And why shouldn’t you? You’ve been here 10 minutes.”

Although the movie had a happy ending, nepotism in the work place can be perceived as a bad thing and can have disastrous results.

So what is nepotism?  Nepotism is defined as “favoritism shown to relatives or close friends by those with power or influence.”

Nepotism in the workplace can be a positive experience for everyone involved, but only if governed by unbiased business practices and consistent accountability for policies and procedures.

Nepotism – 8 Things to Consider

1. Surround Yourself with Non-relatives

family nepotismIt is a natural tendency to pull friends or family members into a new or growing business. We trust them, can count on them and don’t have to worry about them doing harm to the business or stealing trade secrets.

Bringing in outsiders can give your business different perspectives and people with whom you don’t have a personal relationship. Relatives typically will not challenge business decisions or company direction. A successful business has bold individuals who speak up and ask the right questions.

2. Hold Relatives to the Same Standard

If you would not tolerate a habit or action from a non-relative, you shouldn’t accept it from family members. I had the father of an employee call me to let me know she was sick.  I told him, “do your daughter a favor and teach her to communicate on her own.”

3. Have Written Guidelines and Enforce Them

Every business should have written policies and procedures. Not having them can lead to discrimination claims or unlawful termination lawsuits but the rules have to apply to ALL employees, including relatives. There should be no favoritism or preferential treatment as it creates division and resentment from other employees.  It is also a good idea to have a nepotism policy that forbids managers from having relatives as direct reports.

4. Require Them to Work Their Way Up

If you plan to eventually hand down your family business to a child, you may not want to make those intentions public. The child may not want the job when it comes time. Worse, he or she may feel entitled to it and not do the work necessary to earn the position. The annals of business history are littered with companies that collapsed under second-generation leadership.

Manage the performance of the relative and make sure they start at the bottom, learn about the company from every nook and cranny, and earn the respect of other employees.

5. Identify a Mentor

Everyone needs a professional mentor. Close relatives, however, rarely fulfill this role; it’s difficult to separate the roles of “parent” and “mentor.”

Enlist a non-relative in your company, someone you respect, to take on the role of leading the professional development of your relative worker.

Some business owners I’ve known like to set up a good cop-bad cop scenario. The owner will play the ” bad cop” to his son or daughter, being extra tough as a way to demonstrate to the rest of the workforce that he won’t play favorites. But a partner or vice president can play the “good cop” and mentor the son or daughter through his or her development.

6. Everybody Earns the Same

Your relatives have to earn the same as comparable employees. You need to establish equal compensation and benefits not only for budgetary reasons, but also for employee morale. If you think you can keep the pay inequity a secret, don’t kid yourself. Workers talk, and they will also notice if your relative has a little more to spend than they do.

Have job descriptions written for all positions that include pay grades. Review descriptions regularly to make sure what is written still reflects the job qualifications, responsibilities and compensation.

7. Require Job Appropriate Training 

Hiring relatives for jobs they don’t have the necessary training to perform is bad for you, your company and for them. Nobody wants to fail, but you may set them up to do just that if you hire them to lead your marketing team and their degree is in Ancient Egyptian History.

This is another area in which having written job descriptions helps. Every job description should include minimum and preferred education requirements.

8. Sometimes you Need to Make the Tough Call

Sometimes friends and family don’t work out. You need to separate the personal relationship from the professional one. If you would terminate the employment of a non-relative in a situation, you have to be willing to do so with a family member.

This is the most difficult thing to do. After all, firing a relative can make for an awkward Thanksgiving gathering.

You can cushion the blow and maintain the family relationship by helping your relative find a better fit elsewhere. Offer feedback on their resume, give them ongoing business coaching and use your knowledge of the business community to suggest potential employers. Also leave the door open for a return to the company, provided he or she can grow into a role.

Nepotism is often impossible to avoid. And there are times when a relative is the most qualified for a certain job. Just make sure that when relatives are at work, they are treated as fellow employees, not as family.

photo by:  Bernard Farrell