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…
- 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.