No leadership error embodies the appearance of impropriety more completely than nepotism, and, for good measure, it also creates an inherent conflict of interest and undermines fairness and integrity. Yet people continue to argue that it is not inherently unethical, and leaders and managers in all fields continue to walk into the nepotism trap. The fact that it doesn’t always snap shut is not an argument in its favor, for this is just moral luck; letting your kid play with matches in bed won’t necessarily burn the house down or kill him, but it’s still irresponsible.
Washington Redskins fans now have a painful lesson in nepotism’s drawbacks to guide their own decisions. As has been a routine event about now in the pro football season since hapless owner Dan Snyder became responsible for the team’s personnel, the Redskins season is imploding, and the head coach is on the griddle. This season that coach is Mike Shanahan, and the problem is his offense. The Skins were shut out Sunday, 23-0, and appear to have no quarterback, no offensive line, and no clue.
The team’s offensive coordinator? Kyle Shanahan, the head coach’s son. Now what?
Shanahan the Younger was considered a rising star in NFL assistant coach ranks when he was summoned by his dad last season, Shanahan the Elder’s first as the latest in a sad parade of rescuers for the Sad Sack Skins. At the time, nobody sounded the alarm over the nepotism, because the usual rationalizations were in play: “Kyle’s a genuine talent; why should the fact that the Redskins coach is his father stop him from having a job he’s qualified for? Why can’t a father hire a son if he’s the best one for the job? It doesn’t matter whether Kyle’s family or not—all that matters is whether he does the job. The relationship is a good thing: it means that Kyle will be extra-loyal and motivated.”
Like all rationalizations, these were half-true, and still garbage. When a leader hires a relative, there is no way to know whether the choice was based on merit or favoritism; usually it’s a mixture of both. Even if the family member would be objectively regarded as the best available talent, he isn’t as good when he’s working in a nepotism situation. “Doing a good job” is no longer an objective standard when the one judging how good the job performance is has a powerful bias, as a father does when judging his son. The relationship is not a good thing: does the son’s extra-loyalty mean that he won’t speak up and challenge his father’s poor decisions when a less conflicted assistant coach would? Does the father’s loyalty mean that he’ll be less critical of his son’s performance? Or will the father over-react, being more critical of his son to show that he isn’t biased? That’s problem with nepotism too.
There is no way to tell what is happening or what the effect of the nepotism is, which is why all appearance of impropriety situations are toxic to trust; there is no way to tell whether the apparent conflict is causing real harm or not. When everything goes well, the doubts will be muted and there won’t be a crisis in public trust, but that is luck, and nothing more. What if President Kennedy’s Attorney General, younger brother Robert Kennedy, had become embroiled in a controversy like the current Attorney General, credibly accused of stone-walling Congress? Then Bobby’s lack of credentials for his job—other than President’s trust in him as a confidante—would have haunted JFK. Would Kennedy have had the integrity to fire his younger brother, if he deserved to be fired? We can’t be sure; for all we know, Jack did know of misconduct that should have led to Bobby’s exit.
In 2011’s Washington, D.C. nepotism drama, however, things are not going well. Not only are the Skins losing, but the leaks have sprung in Nepotsim Central, where Kyle Shanahan is responsible. It was fully predictable, not that this would happen, but that it could very well happen, way back in 2010 when Mike Shanahan had the bright idea of hiring sonny boy. Not foreseeing this is a miserable failure to play ethics chess: when a choice is a good bet to create an ethics problem a few moves from now, don’t make it. Owner Snyder should have forbidden it; Kyle should have turned the job down.
Washington Post sportswriter Tracee Hamilton has argued that the family should have vetoed the idea. Good point: when a nepotism situation explodes, both the organization and the family relationships are at risk. Hamilton asks, “How in the world is Grandpa going to fire the father of his grandchildren?”
That, my friends, is a conflict of interest!
There is one way out of this mess with minimal damage: Kyle Shanahan should do his father, the team, and his family a favor and resign, right now. Not because he’s necessarily at fault for the Redskins’ woes, but because nepotism only adds to them.