Nepotism is the practice of favoritism toward friends or family members.
In the workplace, nepotism is damaging to employee morale. It can create rifts and breed resentment, penalize hard-working team members, and unfairly advantage the undeserving and unqualified.
First, is nepotism legal?
Yes, it is. There’s nothing that legally prohibits nepotism.
However, in some of the upper echelons of public work, family members cannot be hired for certain positions, but what crosses the line depends on your state’s conflict of interest laws.
We’ll talk about exactly what to say when you see nepotism happening, but first let’s talk about how to spot it.
Examples of nepotism in the workplace
The nephew intern
You come into work one day to find a young man still in his salad days—perhaps a college freshman or even a recent high school graduate. You’re told to find him some work to do, 20 hours of it every week, he’ll be here for the summer, and oh, by the way, it’s the CEO’s nephew, or cousin, or surprise younger brother, or the son of a board member. What are his skills? Nothing yet, he’s a C student at best who doesn’t participate in class, but he’s on the CEO track for sure. We just know it.
The teacher’s pet
There’s a company brown-noser, always hanging around the boss’s office, doing personal favors, offering little gifts, getting the best assignments, or taking credit for other people’s work. They’ve found a way to sucker onto the head honchos and claw their way to the top—despite never really contributing anything at all.
One morning you’re introduced to the new chief synergy officer. He’s an old friend of the boss and just left a senior role at another company under not-so-favorable terms (you have to turn off Google safe-search to even find the news coverage). The boss offers him a senior role for which he’s not at all qualified. Now he’s sitting pretty in a corner office with a pension and dedicated PR protection.
You manage a client account and are regularly told to give them preferential treatment, maybe even fudge numbers occasionally. On a call one day, you find out the woman who leads this company is your CEO’s boyfriend. Busted. At least now you can ask about their recent trip to Aspen on your next weekly reporting call.
Is nepotism ever okay?
Sometimes what looks like nepotism is less nefarious.
For example, take a woman who inherits a family business: She grew up watching it grow and after working for years as president, takes over the chairman's seat. While it may feel like the new chairman, strike that, chairwoman, had an unfair advantage, she’s likely completely qualified for the job.
And while it can be truly grating to have to work with a company bootlicker who's always sucking up to the powers that be, they may also be producing solid work. You don't know what you can't see.
What to say when you encounter nepotism at work
Don’t jump to conclusions
Before you say something, take a step back. You may not know everything about the person’s qualifications or the exact details of the arrangement. Before you decide it’s unfair, take a deep breath and look at the situation as objectively as possible. And remember that it's not your job to go digging for dirt.
Document what you see
If you believe you have a case of nepotism infecting the business, start documenting what you see, especially if you can point to specific, measurable examples. For example, if an office favorite or team family member is getting the best assignments despite lagging performance, you can use that to build your case (we’ll talk about what to say below).
Say something—and keep it professional
Because nepotism typically occurs in the higher levels of a business, it’s not easy to decide where to go with your complaint. The best places to go are up, not laterally.
What to say to your boss
If you’re being passed over for assignments or promotions as a result of nepotistic practices, go to your boss and make your case as objectively as possible.
I noticed that I was not put on the new account that came in. My client ratings have exceeded expectations during the last three quarters, and they continue to improve every month. Could we discuss why I was passed over for that project? How can I position myself to take on the next big account that comes in?
I'd like to talk to you about why I was passed over for the last promotion. I have proved myself to be a capable, competent leader over the last two years. I know I was up for that job. Can you let me know exactly why I didn't get it?
Talk about why you deserve the opportunities, not why the other person doesn’t. Don’t frame it as: This is unfair, or You’re playing favorites. Focus on your own qualifications and achievements. Talk yourself up, don't talk them down.
If you’ve been given an unqualified direct report, do the best you can to ensure they earn that line on their resume. Even though they’re not qualified, they may be quite willing to put in the work. You can work smart here by giving them assignments you need to get off your plate.
What to say to a human resources
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your boss about the nepotistic practices, you can talk to someone in human resources.
You might say...
I’ve noticed some concerning practices in the office lately. I have been passed up for X, Y, and Z opportunities despite meeting or exceeding all my goals and receiving positive performance reviews. As far as I can tell, I have outperformed those who have received the opportunities. I wanted to alert you to the practice but also ask your advice on how I might address the matter.
I'm concerned that qualified people are being overlooked for valuable opportunities. I know I don't see everything that goes on, nor do I know everyone's performance numbers, but morale is low because some of us have not been at the table when great new opportunities crop up—even though we ask to be at that table, repeatedly. I wanted to let you know because morale is low and it's affecting engagement, but also because I wanted to get your advice.
This approach focuses on your performance and asks for next steps. You might not be the first employee who’s brought the problem to their attention.
Anonymously alert others to the company’s practices
If you address the problem, but nothing changes, it might be time to move on. And as you do, consider anonymously reviewing the company’s practices. This is a way you can help hold companies accountable for unethical practices and help other women avoid companies who practice favoritism.
When they go low, you go high
Watching nepotism play out is completely frustrating, so remember that you’re only in charge of yourself and the way you react. For example, gossiping or bad-mouthing the offender is not going to improve the situation, it’s going to single you out in a bad way.
Just remember to go high when they go low.
Time to move on? Find a company that matches your values.