Nepotism in the WorkPlace – Are you a Beneficiary? A Facilitator? Or a Casualty?

by Darwin on September 22, 2009

Nepotism creeps up in all manners in everyday life and in the workplace as well.  Have you ever been asked to get someone a job?  Float their resume around?  To lobby for a particular candidate because it’s someone’s brother, cousin, spouse or friend?  I have.  And it’s always a bit disconcerting to reconcile the different thoughts and emotions that accompany such a request. On one hand, you have someone who’s in need of a job asking you for help.  If you were in their spot, you’d probably be doing the same right?  Especially in this economy.  On the other hand, should “networking” (politically correct) or nepotism (calling it what it is) be a factor in which candidate ultimate lands that spot and which one doesn’t?  Does this guy deserve your spot?

This could be your cousin at the company picnic

I’ve been confronted with this situations a few times and in two prior cases, it didn’t turn out well.  And more recently, I don’t know what the outcome is just yet.

Nepotism in the WorkPlace

Nepotism Case #1 – Early in my career, a friend of ours was looking to get into the biopharmaceutical industry.  I had been in the industry just a couple years and following a lot of hard work and some luck, I had built what I would consider some “professional capital” and a better job title after some promotions.  I was however, confined to a particular niche of the company and didn’t have a lot of contacts in other areas outside of manufacturing.

Our friend asked if I could forward their resume to a business area to see if they could get their foot in the door.  I knew this friend pretty well and thought they’d make a good addition to the company and figured “what the heck?”.  Inside my head, admittedly, there were also some other thoughts going on in the background.  On the positive side, I had thoughts like “they’re a good person, they’re cool, I’d love to see them working here”, “they’d do it for me, right?”.  On the negative side, I was thinking, “what if it doesn’t work out?”.  Since I had no contacts in the area, I had to go through an old college contact that I hadn’t kept in touch with and ask who the decision-makers were, make contact with a hiring manager, introduce myself and basically sell this friend to just get them to take a look at the resume and line up an interview.  I highlighted some positive interactions I’d had and some demonstrated leadership examples and past work experience that I was familiar with.  I don’t know if my call had anything to do with it, but I understood that my friend got a call back for an interview.

Well, a few weeks later, I asked how the interview went when we saw our friend next and I was mortified to hear that our friend “missed the interview”.  They said something happened with their calendar or cell phone or something and completely missed the interview.  I felt like I totally wasted the one shot I probably had at helping someone out with that group and now I looked like a fool for recommending them.  Concurrent with this event, our friend got an offer from another company.  So, I’m not sure if this was an honest mistake or they just blew off my company once they accepted another job or what, but either way, it left me regretting my decision to help them out.  I had expended considerable time, effort, and professional capital in trying to make something happen and it was all for naught.

Nepotism Case #2 – A year or two later, I was approached by a friend’s relative who was looking to get into my field actually.  They had an engineering degree, wanted to get into a higher paying industry and seemed intelligent, mature and responsible.  I didn’t know them very well, but because they were a relative of a good friend of mine and they genuinely seemed like a good candidate, I figured I’d at least pass their resume on.  We’d hung out a few times and I knew them at least well enough to pass on the resume to the right people.  This time though, having been somewhat burned the first time, I was resolved to just facilitate getting the resume to the right person, but made no particular endorsements or rave reviews.  I inquired a bit into their interests, ability to relocate, etc. and then put the resume into the hands of some hiring managers.  I was actually hiring at the time, but didn’t think it would be appropriate to hire them myself, nor was their personality a perfect fit for my particular area (production supervision vs. technical/engineering require a different demeanor/culture often times).

So, this person made it into the candidate pool and they attached my name as a reference.  When questioned on whether I could endorse them, etc., I had just replied that I met them a couple times and they seemed qualified, but given my lack of professional/personal history with them, I couldn’t really make an endorsement one way or the other.

Well, when the friend’s relative called one day to check in, they pretty much alluded to the fact that the only reason they wanted to get in was so my company would pay for their PhD, which is somewhat common in Biopharma, but was not offered in their current role.  They were basically looking for me to facilitate their taking advantage of my company.

Again, while I had a very minor role in just passing along a resume, I felt partially responsible for another lousy situation involving networking/nepotism or whatever you want to call it.  I didn’t act on it and was curious how it panned out.  Through whatever means during the interview process, I presume one of the interviewers picked up on the agenda and they opted to not extend an offer.  If they did extend an offer, what was I supposed to do, ignore the situation?  Or intervene?  I was questioning how and why I even involved myself in the situation and was relieved when it ironed itself out through natural means.

After these two cases, I’d pretty much had it with the “hook me up” thing.  While anecdotal, in hearing similar stories from other friends, I can only imagine that the aggregate outcome is net negative.  For the one case that works out well, where 5 years later, someone looks back and says, “Hey, that college buddy of mine is doing a great job and loves it here after I helped him land an interview”, there are probably many more cases where someone got burned.

Current Situation – This brings me to the current situation.  We have an acquaintance who was recently laid off and just now started looking for work again.  The other day, they approached me and asked if I’d forward their resume around and speak with the hiring managers visible on the external job board.  On one hand, again, with someone with a young child out of work, nice person, responsible, etc…how can you just say, “No, I’m not helping?”.  Conversely, I barely know them and I’ve been burned before on this.  So, I’ve agreed to pass along the resume to someone I actually do know in the particular field they’re in to review and forward along if they felt appropriate and I also checked around on another upcoming job posting that will go external and I passed that along.  But I haven’t contacted hiring managers and the like, as I don’t know them, and I barely know the candidate.  If things go their way, great – it’s by natural means through the established system, if not, I was at least honest in my reply that I’d pass it along to some folks I did know who may be looking for someone with similar qualifications – which I did.  But given my past experiences and my conflicted feelings over the ethical aspect, I’m not going over the line in trying to give them a significant advantage over other candidates coming in with no such advantages.

Positive outcomes of nepotism and networking – I think there are some clear pros and cons to having current employees recommending or hiring people they know for jobs.  On the plus side, you already know something about the person and there’s some “skin in the game”.  You’d like to think this person won’t make you look bad and will be appreciative of the opportunity you’ve afforded them in getting in.  Perhaps someday, they’ll help you out in a similar situation?  Let’s think about the networker themselves – isn’t an aggressive “go-getter” a sign of someone with initiative – someone who’s going to sell your product, advance your agenda, get results?  Well, maybe, but that’s the going viewpoint.

Negative outcomes of nepotism and networking – Is it right?  Is it ethical?  If you have two candidates – one is rather outgoing, charismatic, has tons of friends and family and has 5 people vying for them for a coveted role, do they deserve a leg up on this next guy?  Candidate 2 is rather introverted and doesn’t really go out of his way to play politics and popularity.  They just work hard and get their hands dirty and figure by doing the right thing, they’ll be afforded the right professional opportunities.  All other things being equal, in the real world, Candidate #1 is often going to get the job.  But is that right? Some workplaces actually have policies against nepotism and there are nepotism law cases, but the reality i that it is quite pervasive in society today, almost expected.

Perhaps you have your job because of nepotism.  Perhaps you were passed over for a job because you didn’t know the right people.  Perhaps you don’t even know it.

Disclosure: I landed my first job in industry by chance (and I guess I was qualified and made a good impression) and didn’t know a single person that worked at my company.  I found a flyer advertising for Chemical Engineers in a production facility in one of my campus halls senior year and checked it out and it eventually led to a job.  In hindsight, that was sheer luck that I happened to come across that obscure flier.  If I hadn’t landed a job post-graduation, would I have resorted to asking someone I knew to “hook me up”?  I don’t know, probably.  Wouldn’t you?

Incidentally, The word nepotism is from the Latin word nepos (meaning “nephew” or “grandchild”). (wikipedia)

What are your thoughts nepotism and networking?  Any similar stories?

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1 CBT September 23, 2009 at 12:57 pm

This is a good article, makes a lot of sense. Sometimes it’s not what, but who you know.

2 Kristin Abele October 5, 2009 at 1:10 pm


I wanted to congratulate you on having this piece selected to be part of this month’s Carnival of Trust, hosted by Scot Herrick.

The Carnival of Trust is held monthly and is a compilation of the best blog posts touching on the subject of trust in business, politics and society. It is compelling arguments and strong writing like yours that make for a great Carnival.

Kristin Abele

3 Hilary March 14, 2010 at 4:42 pm

The kind of nepotism that really hurts this country is when dim-witted jocks leave college with a job already lined up because their parents own a business or their parents have rich friends that can offer them jobs. Those are the jobs that are never posted for the world to see. Familial nepotism is what hinders your chances of ever escaping the working-class. You can have merit coming out your ears, but if lack of connections forces you to seek your opportunities from strangers, you’re going to be exploited. Period. We need policies to address the problem for example, free education through college, more government jobs and more housing assistance. This isn’t Russia. If you’re willing to work hard, you shouldn’t need “connections” in order to live a middle-class lifestyle.

LR Reply:

@Hilary, Damn straight Hilary! The popularity contest doesn’t end with college. You’re very astute. Most people I know won’t even acknowledge that the nepotism system exists (of course they’re the very ones that benefit from it). After I got my engineering degree, the only doors that opened for me were the double doors at Wal-Mart. Several of my former schoolmates, most of them jocks, would walk past and hurl insults at me, saying I was a fucking loser and that they knew I wasn’t really smart-implying that I wasn’t smart enough to get a real job. If their mommies and daddies didn’t have influence, they too would be shitter cleaners. Sick fucking world. Obama’s preacher was right-God damn America.

4 Vic August 18, 2010 at 9:41 pm

I work for a company that actively encourages nepotism. We regularly get emails about job opportunities and asking us to refer our friends and family. In my department there is also huge amounts of favoritism on the parts of the leadership. Bonuses and special awards are given out on what is advertised as a competitive basis, and rewards based on performance. Unfortunately, that is all talk, if you schmooze up enough to the supervisors you get personal as well as professional perks. It is not uncommon for supervisors to go out to lunch with an employee, favorite employees are given company equipment (our jobs are totally done at work, it is impossible to do our work at home) for them to use at home, when a favorite employee comes in late a blind eye is turned but non-favorites get their swipe times pulled and examined, raises and bonuses are given based on the supervisors ranking each of us in the department and a percentage is given to each person-clearly favorites get the upper cut and non favorites get the table scraps, and there is a special award program that gives a recognition certificate as well as monetary award based on whatever a supervisor determines is deserving of an award-this is a very easy way to determine who is a favorite and how favored they are-and who is not.
Oh, and I work at one of the nation’s largest companies, and in our main product, THE largest company. Sad, very sad state of affairs.

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8 lilleth April 21, 2018 at 10:04 pm

My husband works for a nonprofit arts organization. Over the years, the hiring of friends of friends has led to an office environment where many of the employees and contracts are attractive young women with fair skin and hair who also happen to adore the two top managers. The mission tag line is the rather common “art for all,” but the staff demographics do not reflect the mission statement at all. Theh programming is diverse, but not the staff. Long term organizational viability is IMO threatened by the nepotistic hiring practices. I think this is more common in small private businesses than it is in the public sector.

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