Am I My Brother’s Keeper? How Unethical is Nepotism

Our Liberian (and African) culture dictates that we look after our family members. Be it the elderly, youth, impoverished or affluent. We are expected to have the best interests of our relatives at heart and to “look after your own”. While this is a good thing, it can also be to our detriment as employees or the detriment of the organization.

Many in the western societies frown on the hiring of relatives and have even attached a big word to it called “nepotism”. In its simplest meaning, nepotism is the practice of favoring a family member when it comes to employment. This would mean hiring that relative over another applicant even if the relative is not qualified and experienced to perform the required duties and responsibilities

Over the years, I have seen several situations wherein someone originating from a particular ethic group seeks to hire people generally from the same ethnicity. For example, it would be somewhat common for someone hailing from the Southeastern region to show preference for people from the Grebo, Sarpo and Kru tribes, etc. when hiring.

Now the big question is “Is this a bad thing?”I say “not necessarily so”. We all generally prefer to hire people we have things in common with and or feel comfortable with. It’s easier to trust someone originating from your family or tribe as you believe you both have same values, morals and traditions. You find yourself quickly trusting that person and feel more comfortable to say certain things in their presence than you would in front of others. We might also feel more comfortable hiring relatives because we feel they will “have our backs” and “look out for us” in the organization. It is also somewhat expected of you by your family -both spoken and unspoken- that once you are with a particular organization or level in society, you are expected to help your families and hire a few relatives or tribal kinsmen. .

This is not just a Liberian or African thing. Let’s take the US State Department for example. When Diplomats are assigned to a particular country, it is mostly expected that the receiving embassy will find a job for the accompanying spouse (who isn’t a diplomat) and certain jobs within the embassy are strictly reserved for these spouses. This guarantees not only keeping certain information the embassy doesn’t want public contained, but also extra income for that diplomat’s family and the spouses from becoming entirely bored from doing nothing for the duration of the assignment ( often two years). In this situation, we condone this as “acceptable” and “their thing”. Not all bad, right?

This practice however, could be very harmful for the organization especially when hiring those that are unqualified.For our country Liberia that is plagued with corruption, practicing nepotism could be tricky because it is easy to see how public funds could be siphoned into the hands of a few. It is also easy to see why the chief executive officer of a public agency who hires his brother as the comptroller finds it difficult to take drastic action when he has been caught embezzling money or misusing resources.  It is also easy to see how a very lenient leader in the workplace could allow a relative to blatantly break organization’s rules with impunity. It is always easier to chastise others than your flesh and blood. In addition, It is easy to overlook the incompetence of your relative and provide promotion after promotion to him/her over others who are high performers. This could have serious effects on the morale of the workforce.

How easy would it be for you to have your brother jailed for stealing the organization’s money? You may quickly yell “easy!” but it is always easier said than done. How many leaders (public and private) have persecuted their relatives for corruption?

So, since it’s culturally acceptable to be our brother’s keepers, what can we do to while not totally stop nepotism, but minimize the associated risks and down sides of nepotism? Any sort of perceived favoritism of a relative can cause dissatisfaction among employees and tends to lower morale and productivity. Other employees who are actually high performers feel less motivated to work harder in the face of blatant nepotism.

I believe that key to this is limiting situations of conflicts of interest and influence. If a supervisor or someone of authority in an organization decides to hire a relative, it would be key and advisable to make sure not to have direct supervision over this relative. It would also mean limiting situations of influence or decision making when it comes to matters of promotions, pay, benefits, or other related matters where that could disfavor other competent employees.

It will also be good to make use of conflict of interest documents or develop policies that will clearly discuss how to handle situations where relatives work at the same organization and require full disclosure when recruiting. The policies will help serve as a guide hopefully that will help minimize unfair behavior in the workplace.

So rather than focus on trying to totally stopping nepotism in our society- and at the same time whist not embracing it – we should be more focused (I believe) on minimizing nepotism.

In closing, I found this quote from Herman Melville and thought to share:  “All experience teaches that, whenever there is a great national establishment, employing large numbers of officials, the public mu…st be reconciled to support many incompetent men; for such is the favoritism and nepotism always prevailing in the purlieus of these establishments, that some incompetent persons are always admitted, to the exclusion of many of the worthy”

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