The word nepotism is derived from the Latin word ‘nephew’ (The nepot). Is it therefore any wonder that nepotism begins at home. When value, ability and worthiness are compromised, we come across the ‘talented cousin’, ‘daughter’, ‘son’ and not merely a nephew. It follows therefore that the scope of nepotism is quite wide, besides relatives, it can go on to include, the unworthy; the undeserving.
In our cultural setting, the interviewers, while conducting interviews of prospective candidates, get away with loathsomely murderous questions relating to ‘place of residence of the candidate; to father’s name and occupation; and can go into a realm of extremely personal information like, ‘when and with whom you intend to get married’ and a host of other such questions that are laced with biases and prejudices. I have witnessed, co-members on interview panels, put across with abandon, questions like, ‘what’s your mother tongue’?
Corporates, institutions and governments, put out hollow slogans atop, their advertisement for jobs, like, ‘we are an equal opportunity employer’! Indeed it may be an institutionalised principled stand of any organisation to be so; but how can anybody ensure, a complete buy-in, by those who are the members on panels and boards.
In my career, I have come across nepotism relating not only to kith and kin, but it has harboured around, biases and prejudices relating to linguistic aspects, religious beliefs inclusive of sectarian bias; cultural identity and in many cases, even bi-partnership was visibly demonstrated for candidates from specific geographic areas. All the prejudice and biases emerge from the mindset of those who are hirers and recruiters.
Nepotism is not restricted to the area of recruitment alone. It is the beginning. It finds itself in the day to day working of an institution. Birds of the same feathers flock together is an old English adage, but so true even at the work place. As managers, we find these clusters of colleagues who are divided and pitted against, each other based on prejudices and biases. Prejudice relates well with people who are possessed with small talent but great ambitions.
If there is no bias and there is complete impartially in dealing with colleagues then there would be no distinctions in the treatment and handling of colleagues. And there can never be any superiority. The gentlemen calls to attention to the good points in others; he does not call to attention their defects. The small man does just the opposite (Confucius). Here is the catch, the prejudiced manager will always call to attention defects in colleagues if they are not within the ambit of his bias and will mask all their good qualities.
Sometimes it has been an unfortunate experience to be sitting in the company of co-interviewers who blatantly demonstrated prejudice and bias. Here questions were followed up one after the other to determine if the candidate hailed from this side of the river or the other. If luckily the candidate was from the right side of the river bank, he was a preferred candidate. Pettiness of mind is in my view the best definition of nepotism.
Organisations that dispense performance and evaluate its members based on bias, end up expunging from their rank and file virtue, credit, stature, talent and distinction. Expedient hiring or even promotion of existing colleagues demonstrates the short sightedness of those at helm. Such management is in quest of quick gains and are not visionaries for a long term run. Individuals, however incompetent, will be hired and promoted if they have ‘relatives’ or ‘mere connection’ at the ‘right’ places. Pharma industry needs good contacts at the health ministry, cellular companies at the regulatory offices and so on. Here ‘merit’ is ruthlessly sacrificed at the altar of ‘expediency’. Being ‘blue eyed’ of the management is perfectly acceptable if that stature is acquired for reasons of merit, but if it is a consequence of prejudices and biases it is a proof of organisational promotion of narrow minded thinking. Bigotry, intolerance, partiality and unfairness stifle, ‘meritocracy’ in institutions.
Dispassionateness and objectivity is lost in the enveloping clouds of one sidedness and discrimination. There is an in built meaning of negativity in the word nepotism. Yet there are management experts, who believe that nepotism also has a positive dimension to it. I do not subscribe to this view or approach, except and up to, if it relates to family owned businesses. In such cases, it involves issues of succession of leadership and in many cases puts the continuity of business into focus. In owner operated business, it is expected that nepotism relating to relatives will receive positive encouragement. This is usually followed by each relative having his or her own sphere of influence within the organisation achieved through either collection of sycophants or talented people; this depends on the personal orientation and level of self confidence of the relative.
Several years ago, reading a business magazine in Hong Kong, I came across a cartoon where the caption read, something like...’Michael, this is my son Robert. Explain to him what it is you do, then clean your desk.’ In such an environment, it is difficult to conceive, if any employee will give his full and total commitment to the company’s objectives. The proponents of accepting nepotism at work go to the extent of recommending having ‘nepotism policy’ especially in small and medium sized organisations.
Nepotism lowers morale. It must be nipped in the bud. Favouritism is a more deadly format of nepotism. When organisations succumb to the promotion of the unintelligent over the intelligent or failures over performers it has taken a path towards its demise. Nepotism, whether it is tacitly promoted or done pronouncedly creates rivalries that impact negatively upon business. When one relative supervises another, the place is a ready hot bed for germinating negative tendencies in the organisation.
Being selective in giving and sharing information with a chosen few, for reasons beyond confidentiality is also a format of bias, prejudice and nepotism. Information can be critical especially if it involves two relatives working together. Having arrived into Pakistan in mid-nineties, I was being interviewed by a managing director, who later called in the HR head to join in.....in the ensuing discussion, I was flabbergasted at the open ‘informality’ between the two; in fact it was getting uneasy to watch them cooing up to each other..... Later, I learnt, they were a husband and wife team. That institution, which by Divine help I did not join, was one huge bee hive of conspiracies, back biting, groupings, where all merit and talent was lost in the short distance between the husband-wife duo management structure.
Nepotism affects productivity. Meritocracy is dispensed. Merit, comes from old French word ‘merite” the source of which is Latin, mere to deserve. When quarrels and complaints rise it is when people who are equal have not got equal shares (Aristotle). Intellect has no covert or overt relationship with equality except to respect it as a principled convention. To those who prefer or indulge in the menace of bias and prejudice, equal opportunity or equality is a mortuary word.
When a man tries himself the verdict is always in his favour- where affection is the judge no trial can be fair. The mere moral indignation towards bias...permits envy, hate or unfairness to be acted out in the guise of virtue.
A manager who has no spine to stand against on the principled stance of impartiality will fall for anything. To the contrary, a good manager sees and evaluates colleagues from all sides without bias. The partisan man is biased and can look from one side alone, with motive to favour whom he likes. Nepotism in our country is cancerous- it spreads and that too with speed. It must be crushed by following merit as a lone standard. Practice of this approach is the supreme teacher. To know the road ahead, good managers never fail to ask those coming back.
The writer is a senior banker and freelance columnist