Why Don’t People Understand What’s Unethical About Nepotism?

Bing and family

I suppose it is part of the larger problem that people don’t understand what’s wrong with conflicts of interest, and thus fall into them too easily. At its core, nepotism always, always, creates a conflict of interest for the supervisor, boss or manager, or leaves a strong suspicion of one, which is just as bad, the epitome of “the appearance of impropriety.” Nepotism simultaneously destroys the organization’s members’ trust in leadership—Was he or she objective? Was love and loyalty to a child rather than merit and the best interests of the organization behind the decision? Were there objectively better candidates? Will this bias harm me? —and the hired, no matter how good or qualified the son or daughter may be. If the organization declines and heads have to roll, the suspicion will always be that favoritism protects the offspring. If the organization is successful, there will still be a widespread belief that Sonny Boy or Darling Daughter is whispering in the parents’ ear, a mole, on the side of the parent rather than subordinates. Nepotism almost always destroys any organization’s morale, trust, and cohesion.

Why is this so difficult? It is spectacularly obvious, and the only defenses that are ever offered are…

  1. Everybody does it. “Look at family businesses!” Yes, look at them. This is what kills a lot of family businesses after one generation or so.  Family businesses that use the marketing gimmick that “This is a family business!” obviously have decided to make a flaw a feature. It works for the Kardashians, but then their business is promoting and profiting from cultural rot, so you can argue that corruption like nepotism is appropriate.  But look at all the farms, and restaurants, and other family businesses that suddenly stopped being family businesses once the next generation showed neither talent nor interest in the enterprise. When successors with the same last name just aren’t very talented, interested or able, it highlights the fact that every act of nepotism is a bet with someone else’s interests, money and tolerance. Bing Crosby had six relatively untalented children and a wanly talented second wife, but if we wanted to see the nation’s greatest balladeer or hear him sing “White Christmas,” we had to put up with them. Aaron Spelling abused his position by making audiences put up with his mediocre daughter who was even more mediocre than his TV shows.

And then there’s Chelsea….

2. Look! This beneficiary of nepotism did OK! This is pure consequentialism and irrelevant. It is the biased hiring that does the harm and constitutes the ethics breach, and subsequent events can’t alter any of it. Moreover, a nepotism hire’s success and organizational rot flowing from the  hire can exist and often do exist simultaneously.

One reason the public remains so ignorant about the unethical nature of nepotism is that commentators who are obligated to know better remain stubbornly ignorant themselves. For example, the Washington Post’s usually astute sports writer Sally Jenkins, attempting to praise Kyle Shanahan success as an NFL offensive coordinator after he was sacked along with his Washington Redskins head coach father in the wake of that team’s failures, ended up arguing that the Shanahans were unfairly criticized for nepotism. No, they were correctly criticized, by me among others. Still she writes,

“The fact is, nepotism in the NFL isn’t a bad thing. Football is as much of a family trade as stock car racing, an obsessive, sacrificial and unforgiving profession that consumes people to ashes and is almost incomprehensible to outsiders. Coaches like to hire their sons, and the sons of other coaches, because they trust that they have been steeped in the work and the life.”

Ugh. First of all, the Shanahans didn’t own the Redskins, and it wasn’t their family business to run unethically. Coaches like to hire their sons? They aren’t hired to do what they like; coaches are hired to do what’s best for the team whether they like it or not. Her second argument, essentially “The normal rules don’t apply to the NFL,” is a transparent rationalization, or more accurately an ugly amalgam of variations on several centering on The King’s Pass “We’re special,” says the NFL. Besides, we’ve never had a problem with it (#43),  it’s not the first time (#44), it’s complicated (#44), and nobody cares (#50).

And see? Kyle is  a good offensive coordinator after all!

And there were other good ones his father could have hired too, that were not his son. Oh never mind. Jenkins is hopeless on the topic of nepotism, as are most people, thanks to authorities like her.

12 thoughts on “Why Don’t People Understand What’s Unethical About Nepotism?

  1. The Redskins manage to make every mistake in every possible combination: when Joe Gibbs returned to coaching, he said that one of the reasons he returned was to coach with his son.

    I’m not sure if you were intending for this to illustrate your point, but Sally Jenkins is the daughter of the great sportswriter Dan Jenkins. When Sally got out of college, she worked on the West Coast for couple of years, “But then I got a call from George Solomon at The Washington Post, who asked me if I wanted to apply for a job. I sent him some clips, and that began my ascension in the business.” Her ascension was from the San Francisco Chronical, she was 24 years old, AND THE WASHINGTON POST CALLED HER AND ASKED HER IF SHE WANTED TO APPLY.”

    • I never made the connection with Dan, but I should have. And she should have mentioned it herself. Of course she likes nepotism—she owes her career to it, and deludes herself into believing that she is so innately talented that it didn’t really matter, and that there aren’t equally talented writers or more so who she jumped over because of Dad. But she validated the corruption after the fact, you see.


      • Good catch, LS. I was about to wiki Ms. Jenkins since I assumed she must be Dan’s daughter before I read you comment. Too much of a coincidence. And how many people on TV are not related to someone? Anderson Cooper Vanderbilt? All the Cuomo boys? Mika Brizinksi? I’ve begun to pretty much assume the networks sell those spots to the highest bidder.

  2. At what level is nepotism no longer nepotism?

    Obviously being related to a hiring authority or a prime decision maker would be nepotistic.

    What about being related to a mid level manager or supervisor. Or just a laborer?

      • Ive worked for a large family owned business where one of my coworkers was the step son of the owner. He started out at the lowest position in company and working his way up to salesmen. His step father made sure that he knew every part of the company so he could one day run it himself. When it became clear that he while he was an excellent salesmen he didn’t have what it took to run the company and never took over.

        And I have no problem with someone who owns a company grooming his son to take it over.

        We also had the two sons of the COO working there. While they worked hard , they didn’t stop at the bottom and quickly were in nice comfy positions in the office.

        That’s not the way to do it.

  3. I think the fondness for “family businesses” is nostalgic; they were fine in past centuries or even past decades. Before the Industrial Revolution, people’s businesses were at the same place as their homes. Children grew up and learned the family trade, and there was security in that. You could assume if you went into, say, a watch shop that had been there for generations, that the owner grew up in a family obsessed with watches, spent his entire life learning about fixing watches, and was REALLY good at fixing watches.

    The Industrial Revolution and the increasing prosperity that followed, and the cultural changes of the last century, teamed up to pretty much destroy any inherent value in a “family owned business.” Homes are now places of consumption; you “go to work” and return home. Children have nearly unlimited options, with more access to higher education and career training, the ease of relocation to another city, etc. Then there’s the “generation gap” (a recent invention) which nearly stigmatizes the idea of following in the footsteps of one’s parents. Historian Meic Pearse explores this kind of thing pretty thoroughly.

    In 2015, it probably doesn’t mean anything good to hear that a business is “family owned.” And the thriving exceptions (such as the In-N-Out or Chick-Fil-A food chains) are usually cultural-throwback sorts of families.

  4. There is a difference between a family business and a corporation. If you own the business and your heir will be the owner of the business, I don’t think this is abusive nepotism. This person wasn’t hired into a job where the best qualified individual was going to be hired. A position was created for the future owner (and probably current partial owner) of the company. Now, if you are the hired manager of the company and you hire your children, nephews, etc that is different. It isn’t your company and those positions were probably supposed to go to the best qualified candidate.

    Academia is rife with nepotism because of the ‘two-body’ problem. People with Ph.D.’s often hire other people with advanced degrees. It often is difficult for both people to find positions with their degrees in the same location, so many institutions will create a position for the spouse of a new hire. This then makes it difficult to refuse the hiring of spouses of other employees. Feature creep then sets in…

  5. I think America was to be a hope against the Old World proscriptions of where you were born and who you were born to ; that people could find a place where they could make it on the merits of their own talent and hard work. Like Hillary Clinton, Sally Jenkins would not be where she is without a well- connected man behind her. Hillary might be a lawyer and Sally a journalist but not at the echelons they occupy.

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