Monday 11 April 2016 3:50 am

Debrett’s Ask the Expert: How should I handle nepotism in my office?

Tom Welsh is City A.M.'s business features editor.

Tom Welsh is City A.M.'s business features editor.

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Q: My colleagues and I have noticed that many of the new interns and junior staff members at our office seem to be from the same circle of friends of one of our senior management team. I’m used to people’s children getting work experience at our office, but this seems like outright nepotism! Is there a good way to address this, or should I stay quiet?

The saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” remains all too true. Whether it’s politicians employing their spouses in an administrative role, or celebrity offspring securing enviable work experience thanks to a notorious surname, nepotism can be unjust at best and unethical at worst.

A 2014 survey of more than 5,000 people published by the Debrett’s Foundation found that 72 per cent of children from privileged backgrounds admitted to using family connections to secure work placements. Around a quarter of all young people considered the UK’s system for getting work experience and internships to be “unfair”.

Before you rush to judgement on your colleague, consider whether your own career has benefited from personal contacts. Many of us have received advice, introductions or experience from a family member or friend during the early stages of our career. Networking is a key skill in business, and early experience of cultivating a contact can be good preparation for later opportunities to develop a professional relationship or lead.

Blatant nepotism can cause problems in the workplace, however. Other staff may feel resentful if preferential treatment is shown to a junior colleague, especially if he or she hasn’t had to “earn” a place on the team. If an employee is recruited on the basis of a contact rather than skills or experience, he or she may underperform, or lack the motivation to impress and progress. At the same time, supervisors may feel reluctant to offer criticism for fear of a negative impact on their own career prospects.

More broadly, nepotism can undermine the diversity and dynamic of a workforce. If new recruits are consistently chosen from a small social or familial circle, they are likely to share similar backgrounds. Over time, this can have a harmful impact on a company, with a lack of fresh perspectives and staff who are disinclined to question the status quo.

If you are concerned that new employees are being recruited solely on the basis of their connection to a particular executive, it is best to raise the issue with your HR team. Share your concerns about the company recruitment policy generally, avoiding mentioning names or placing blame. Suggest that internships and jobs are advertised more widely, and that those with a connection to the company should undergo the same process as other applicants.

If you’re charged with managing a new starter with a personal connection to a colleague, try to treat him or her as you would any other member of your team. Don’t hold back from offering honest feedback and constructive criticism when required. Equally, try not to let any grievances you have about the way in which he or she was recruited translate into overly harsh treatment. While there is still much to be done to improve social mobility in this country, those at the start of their career shouldn’t be penalised for making the most of any opportunities that come their way.


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