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The Price of Nepotism . . .

By AbyssEntity in Culture
Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 03:08:29 PM EST
Tags: You Know... (all tags)
You Know...

        It's difficult to fault people for nepotism when you stare at the problem. It's a human tendency to want to work with and help the people who are close to you, and work environments are after all social environments. Some offices are grim while others are happy and productive places. But all offices are social environments.

        When I first began working out of college, one of my first experiences with the nature of organizations in general was in the termination of a coworker. A friend of mine at the time and I were working in the office when we noticed an elderly woman returning to work from her weeklong vacation. When she arrived at her desk, she saw that all of her things were packed in a box. As it turned out, Human Resources had packed her things and were supposed to wait for her at the building entrance to be dismissed. When she was escorted out of the building, in tears, it occurred to us that it didn't make any sense for her to be told to leave. She was a good worker who came to work on time, kept to herself, had a good personality, and was productive. She was replaced a couple of weeks later with a friend of the site manager.

       It's difficult to fault people for nepotism when you stare at the problem. It's a human tendency to want to work with and help the people who are close to you, and work environments are after all social environments. Some offices are grim while others are happy and productive places. But all offices are social environments. The line between being social and downright stupid begins to blur when nepotism is injected into business decisions. There's a terrible price to be paid when common sense takes a back seat to the buddy system, when people are hired to do work because of who they are instead of what they do and how good they are. And for all the talk laid out by 26-year old dot-com CEOs with stock options and sports cars, their inevitable fall from grace (and subsequent bankruptcy filings) illustrates this best. There are only a handful of Internet businesses that failed despite housing a group full of true talent committed to a true business model, the vast majority fell by the way-side because of abysmal management and lackluster hiring practices..

       More recently an acquaintance of mine started working with a well-known but dying dot-com that has recently started preparing the lifeboats for the inevitable lay-offs. He confided in me that it bothered him that so many people were on the brink of losing their jobs but that he wasn't terribly surprised. In working with them, he was appalled at the disturbing lack of real direction of the organization and that most of the departments employed people with no real technical knowledge, people who didn't measure their successes by achievement but rather with feel-good "team" philosophies. It can be a mystery trying to figure out where these types of managers come from. Most of the problem comes from one of the most common seen corporate tragedies; managers ruling over departments they're unfamiliar with. An Accounts Receivable manager will suddenly become the new IS manager because he understands how to use a spreadsheet application. If you're a web developer and this person is your boss, trying to explain a technical issue to him/her is like trying to shave your head with a cheese grater. Or how about the office ass kisser becoming a member of a corporate leadership group? With the recent downsizing in Internet companies in the past couple of years, these inexplicable placements of human resources have become common in an effort by management to save some jobs at the expense of the company's welfare. Why do they happen?.

       Human beings in general are comfortable in familiar environments. They tend to embrace familiarity, which in its own way breeds security. When CEOs and CFOs and CIOs and CTOs and whatever-else-kind of-executive-officer make the decision to hire unqualified people, they usually do so in an attempt to surround themselves with a kind of family or group of people they can rely on emotionally. People in positions of power and authority are usually the first to be chastised by parent company officials and shareholders for an organization's troubles. The practice of hiring from the buddy system helps allay these emotional difficulties. And while this sounds like a lot of weak nonsense on the part of the hiring manager to the scores of people who have been laid off in the past couple of years, it illustrates that six and seven figures income per year doesn't make a person immune to human frailties. Another explanation for buddy system hiring is the fact that people do in fact realize it's bad form to not hire on the basis of qualifications, and doing so is tantamount to telling everyone, "I do this because I can." It's a show of strength. Hiring unqualified people from the buddy system to positions of authority is a big "f*ck you" to everyone in the company, an attempt to display to workers who it is that makes the rules and plays God. And again, people in positions of authority do this out of a sense of insecurity and a need for social validation. Recently, an acquaintance of mine confided that executives do in fact have many difficulties dealing with cut-throat environments and that alliances and politics are used to assure themselves of the work they do, that the people around them provide emotional feedback to their performance which speaks volumes more than any quarterly review can do. That same person told me that an exercise recommended by his therapist to work out his stress on paper nearly blew up in his face when he composed it in an email and saved it in his email account. The exercise called for writing to letter of resignation to himself detailing why he was leaving the company. It was supposed to be therapeutic and help him work out his problems. He nearly sent it out in a global email when he pressed the wrong shortcut key on his keyboard, which obviously would have proved disastrous to his career as the letter detailed his complaints with a parent company and the people around him. The core problem in all of this isn't that people are human and sometimes have difficulty adjusting to complicated work situations, but rather that many companies support highly political environments that focus less on business and more on the financial and social stake of the individual. Without these elements, that value of nepotism and improper hiring practices disappear..

       The part that hurts companies the most in hiring and promoting unqualified people is in how it contaminates the environment with under-achieving individuals who sneer at the occasional hard working and talented employee who threatens to "rock the boat". This has become so common in the work place in the past few years that the mood among IT professionals these days swings closer to opting for environments of talented people rather than the usual prerequisite of higher pay. It's easier to take a job that pays ten thousand a year less when your coworkers are creative and talented individuals who have the courage of their convictions and the know-how to make a difference in the competitive market. For all the bashing and criticism Microsoft has received over the years with respect to its deplorable software stability, its ridiculous certification programs, and its questionable business practices, it does many things right (which accounts for its market share). Their development managers come from their development groups, their software architect VPs are in fact real software architects, and their political hierarchy takes a back seat to knowledge and skill. In this system, it's easy to focus on business rather than oak office furniture, office stationeries, administrative assistants, expensive business clothes and bullshit power lunches..

       The chances of a company willing to recognize it's shortcomings in these areas and address them honestly are almost zero because so many executives have based their careers on the buddy system. The real value of realizing the pitfalls and causes of nepotism comes in the form of understanding some of the decisions made by organizational leadership when people are inexplicably promoted and hired.


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The Price of Nepotism . . . | 35 comments (10 topical, 25 editorial, 0 hidden)
so what's your point? (2.09 / 11) (#1)
by taruntius on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 05:42:38 PM EST

Well, ok, the point is obvious, and I doubt anyone will particularly disagree with it. So actually, I would ask you "why not just replace this entire article with 'nepotism is unfair!' and be done with it?"

--Believing I had supernatural powers I slammed into a brick wall.
ummm.... (4.00 / 2) (#34)
by Ender Ryan on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 11:27:31 PM EST

because it's becoming a big issue in the whole tech industry and it's worth discussing... What else do you want?

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[ Parent ]

This is the best writeup on this issue I've seen (4.37 / 8) (#4)
by MSBob on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 05:54:15 PM EST

Kudos. This is by far the best writeup on the issue of buddy hiring and office politics that come with it. I am employed in a small company where there are four married couples employed. And things are about to get worse... I've been requested to recommend a certain very expensive product and been told which brand I have to make look superior purely because my manager has a good friend at the sale office of that brand. For obvious reasons I can't discuss the specifics but I really know where you're coming from.

I think all those who are voting this down aren't out of school yet.

I don't mind paying taxes, they buy me civilization.

I must be really spoiled (3.83 / 6) (#21)
by jesterzog on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 04:28:29 AM EST

I'm probably coming from a naive position but I still don't fully understand how people can put up with this type of behaviour in the workplace.

As much as for an employer to get a good look at you, a job interview is to decide if an employer is someone you want to work for. Next time I hold an interview with a prospective employer, I think I'll aim to ask them at least as many questions as they ask me. (Not right now because I'm currently working.)

Equally as importantly, an employment contract specifies what the employer has to do for you as much as the other way around. The point I'm trying to make is that being employed by someone shouldn't make you into their slave or portrait them higher than you in any way. (Or you higher than them, for that matter.) The more people that stand up for that, the bigger message it might send to the sucky managers.

If I saw someone get laid off under dodgy circumstances as described, I'd seriously consider whether it's the best place for me to be working. Staying there would only mean I could be the next irrational victim. To top it off, I'd consider writing to any co-managers or others frther up the chain, and politely but firmly tell them exactly why I left.

By leaving a job on integrity issues you lose a job, but it looks really good for prospective employers when finding a new job. If it doesn't look good, it's probably no better-a-place to work.

Maybe it's because I'm arrogant enough to assume that I'm good enough at what I do for me to be valuable to an employer. Maybe it's because I'm lucky enough not to have been put in such a position. Probably both. I'm too much of an idealist.

jesterzog Fight the light

everyone back in the ivory tower, please (3.75 / 4) (#32)
by dr k on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 06:50:13 PM EST

How can people put up with this kind of behaviour? Well, one could write volumes about office politics, group behavior, and the things that get ignored. But I would suspect that since the hiring process is usually a rather infrequent and irregular event, it is low on the list of everyday complaints. Workers are more concerned about coworkers who show up late and take long lunches, or high-handed management decisions, or long, unimportant meetings.

Further, I think a majority of businesses exist in their own ivory towers. Think about the whole interview process: do you think your employers took a class on interviewing techniques? Where did they learn to evaluate a resume? I'm sure some professionals do seek out training, but I'll bet 90% of the time the hiring process is based on pop psychology and bestselling books like Who Moved My Cheese? (Which is a rather pathetic allegory that could do with some Marxian interpretation.)

But it gets worse than that. Business owners tend to be painfully unaware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They'll trust their employees with a key to the office, but they don't trust them to make an important phone call without supervision. (Alas, in my situation this has always been due to lack of experience, and not because the situation was proven to be a problem in the past.) So, rather than using the management structure to delegate tasks, managers tend to build a "support" team to act as extra eyes and ears.

I think Reagan is to blame.
Destroy all trusted users!
[ Parent ]

Why they don't.... (4.00 / 4) (#35)
by Elkor on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 11:57:31 PM EST

Not everyone is in a position where they can let their morals govern their actions to such a strong extent.

Would you still quit your job if:
  1. You had just bought a house and getting a new one would require you moving?
  2. Your wife was pregnant and you needed the health coverage offered by your job?
  3. You were paying off $40k in school loans or other debt and didn't have savings to cover a period of voluntary unemployment?

There are many reasons people don't leave their job, even though things happen around them they don't like.

Likewise, sending off nasti-grams to your boss and other supervisors can be a bad move. There is no telling when this supervisor will be with another company and in a position to affect YOUR hiring.

Also, I am of the opinion that you shouldn't wait until you are leaving to blow the lid on bad practices. If you can't change it while you are there, don't try to change it on your way out.

Tell them if they ask, write a letter to the big boss if you want. But plastering your opinions to everyone in the company is bad practice, let along manners.


[ Parent ]
Nepotism conflicted (3.40 / 5) (#29)
by daystar on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 02:24:36 PM EST

You are, of course, correct. Managers who staff through nepotism hurt their employees in many ways, and in the long run they hurt the company as well.

But then, a lot of really competant technical people got their start through the recommendation of a friend. I'm one of them. Now, I was qualified for my first tech job, even though I had no professional experience, and it isn't like someone was fired to make room for me. I had friends at the company, and they told their boss that he should hire me. Because he knew that THEY were sharp, he took their advice. Now I can get jobs on the strength of my own skills and experience, but that first leg up was very helpful. Was it nepotism? In a sense, yes. Was it wrong? I don't think so. If it was, you'd be hard pressed to find someone negatively impacted by it.

So I'm conflicted.

There is no God, and I am his prophet.

Nepotism is not the same as Networking (3.50 / 4) (#30)
by vectro on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 03:30:24 PM EST

I think it can be perfectly acceptable to get a job through a friend or acquaintance. The point is that such a person knows your skills well and can provide an accurate reccomendation. This is valuable to the HR staff, since it's very difficult to get a sense for someone through just a resume, and it is valuable to the employee, because it can represent their skills accurately.

I've gotten two jobs through people I know, but in both cases I was qualified. I'm not saying that an in-house reccomendation should be placed above any HR job search, but I think it is valuable. The problem starts when someone is hired who is not qualified, and only got the job because of someone they knew.

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
[ Parent ]
Not everyone does it for comfort (3.00 / 4) (#31)
by PresJPolk on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 05:45:50 PM EST

Some people throw work to family and friends just to help out family and friends, not for emotional comfort of having familiar people around.

Not always bad (3.50 / 4) (#33)
by NoBeardPete on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 09:04:24 PM EST

Hiring people you know - close friends, old coworkers, childhood friends, family, or whatever - isn't always bad. I won't go into whether you define it as Nepotism or not, but a lot of times hiring people you know is great.

If I was in a position where I had to hire some people, either because I was starting a company, or was promoted to the lead of a project and needed to recruit new team members, or was an HR person, or whatever, I'd be all about hiring a bunch of my friends. Having gone to an excellent technical school, I have numerous incredibly smart, talented, hard-working school buddies who I would go for in a flash. I know what they can do technically, and know how they deal with people, having watched them struggle through classes, worked with them on team projects, lived with them, dealt with plumbing, worked on independent projects, and dealt with interpersonal problems. I know exactly what I'd get, and know it's of the highest quality.

Hiring someone you don't know, even if you talk to past employers, look at their resumes, and have a thorough interview, is a lot riskier. You don't know what you're going to get. Additionally, by hiring someone you know, you'll likely see them get settled in and become productive faster, as you'll both be more familiar with each other.

This doesn't just go for technical jobs either (although, where I to be practicing Nepotism by hiring my friends, I'd pro'lly mostly know good technical people), Any time you're hiring people you already know well, you're not taking as big of a risk, and also get someone who will become comfortable and productive sooner.

Now, if you hire a friend or family member that you know to be an incompetent, mouth breathing idiot, you deserve whatever you get.
Arrr, it be the infamous pirate, No Beard Pete!

The Price of Nepotism . . . | 35 comments (10 topical, 25 editorial, 0 hidden)
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