So you are having trouble with your boss and try to talk with Human Resources (if you even have a department), until you realize the person in HR is the brother / sister / cousin of the owner. Nepotism is one unethical behavior to be aware of within the workplace. Read further to learn more about nepotism, how it impacts the health of your workplace, how to identify instances of nepotism and additional topics of importance.

What is Nepotism?

Nepotism is the process by which those within managerial or executive positions, use their power or influence within an organization to hire unqualified family members rather than promoting talented employees, or hiring external, qualified candidates. Nepotism also occurs when employed family members receive special treatment or little-to-no punishment compared to other employees.

Types of Nepotism

Someone in a position of power could hire their family member for a variety of reasons. Likewise, the family member can accept the position for a variety of reasons as well. Here are two key types of nepotism you might encounter, according to

Reciprocal nepotism

Reciprocal nepotism is a type of nepotism where someone hires a family member and that family member accepts the position, based on the following factors:

  • Interdependence (financial dependency)
  • Extent of exchanges (salary, workplace loyalty, better family relationship)
  • Cultural norms (Instances where nepotism has been allowed in the past)

Entitlement nepotism

Entitlement nepotism is a type of nepotism where the family member hired feels a sense of entitlement for a position, simply because their family member works at a company.

How to Spot Nepotism

Hiring a family member is not always a bad thing. It becomes nepotism when they exhibit unethical behaviors and the family member responsible for overseeing them refrains from giving out punishment. Here are some signs to watch for to help you spot nepotism in the workplace:

They are under-qualified

If one of your managers or company officials hires a family member who is clearly unqualified for a position, this could be a sign of nepotism. Make sure you talk with them to learn more about their reasoning for hiring an unqualified family member. It may be because they truly believe in their professional capabilities, but it could also be due to less benevolent factors. 

They evade punishment

If you continually notice that a manager’s family member is not being reprimanded for showing up late for work, missing deadlines or not abiding by the dress code, this is a sign of nepotism. This is because the employee in the position of power is demonstrating favoritism towards their family member, in not holding them to the same standards as other employees within the department.

They demonstrate unprofessional behaviors

If an employee’s family member consistently demonstrates unprofessional behaviors including being rude to other employees, using profane language or talking back to their manager and family member, this can be a sign of nepotism. This is because the family member/person with the power to put an end to this unprofessional behavior chooses not to out of favor for their family member. 

Other employees have complained to you or HR

Lastly, if your employees address their concerns about nepotism directly to you or HR, this is an obvious sign of nepotism that should not go unnoticed. You should meet with those employees to learn more about what they have observed and further, to let them know they are heard and valued.

Be sure to document these events before making assumptions or taking preemptive actions. If you need a refresher on how best to keep a record of events, read our How To Keep Powerful Documentation post

Is nepotism illegal?

Nepotism in and of itself is not illegal.  A company owner is allowed to hire a daughter, son, sibling, friend, or any other person they like, even if that person is not the most qualified for the job. 

However, what some people may consider “nepotism” becomes illegal when it is actually determined to be illegal discrimination.  For example, say a small business owner belongs to a certain church.  If the business owner only hires people from the same church or religion, or gives employees from the same church or religion preferential treatment over other employees, this goes beyond just hiring a family member- this is religious discrimination, because employees are being treated worse based on their religion.

Another example of “nepotism” crossing the line into illegal employment practices that we see frequently is letting family get away with illegal behavior.  Just because an employer is used to putting up with a relative’s bad behavior does not mean the relative’s coworkers should be subjected to illegal harassment too.  If an employee engages in sexual harassment, or racial harassment or some other illegal behavior in the workplace, and the employer lets it go without taking action because the harasser is family, the employer’s tolerance of that harassment is illegal.