Nepotism in the Workplace-How to Stop It

You are my favorite!Favoritism. Bias. Preferential treatment. Nepotism in the workplace. How do you stop it from becoming an issue? Today we have a special post with someone needing assistance. Let’s pitch in and help.

Sometime last year I posted a rant from someone who was being stepped on at work. That person received help anonymously through the comments and today I have another post from another frustrated, anonymous HR pro. Let’s hear what they have to say and then give some tips and pointers in the comments. If you’re looking for more info, here’s a post on how to communicate with difficult people at work.

So here’s my deal. I’m an HR rep at a well-respected organization. We’ve been quite successful and I would say we are in the top 5 or 10% in the state for our industry.

Our personnel policies have been on the minimalist side. For example, our dress code would be along the lines of “wear what makes sense given the activities of your day” as opposed to that 43 page Swiss bank’s dress code several people have blogged about recently.

I believe the less-is-more philosophy is a good one in general, but we are missing one policy I think we should have, one against nepotism.

The boss believes that we should all be adults and work out our relationships without need for such formalities. As the HR person, this idealism or naivety is causing me hell!! We have a husband-wife team that are pretty high up in the company. He (Bob) supervises her (Lucinda), though the CEO signs off on performance reviews and expense reports.

So many complaints and allegations come to me about Lucinda’s conduct and performance, and they go nowhere because she is married to the person who is essentially second in command. I also get complaints about Bob’s apparent favoritism of his wife.

We even had a terminated employee use whistle blower protection to file a formal grievance with the CEO that Bob had falsified official documents in a way that protected his wife while throwing the other person under the bus, and nothing happened. I have talked about the conflicts of interest with the CEO alone and in our senior leadership meetings. Our boss continues to think we should all just work out our conflicts.

I’m really frustrated with this and don’t know what to do with employee complaints when they come in. Bob and Lucinda clearly aren’t going anywhere, but I’ve been wondering if I need to move on myself. Any suggestions, anyone?

What can I do about this nepotism in the workplace? Help!


9 thoughts on “Nepotism in the Workplace-How to Stop It

  1. Alison Green / Ask a Manager

    You could potentially work out your conflicts like adults if Bob and Lucinda were acting like adults, but they’re not. The money line here is this one: “So many complaints and allegations come to me about Lucinda\’s conduct and performance, and they go nowhere because she is married to the person who is essentially second in command.”

    Go to your CEO and say: “We have a problem with Bob’s supervision of Lucinda. I am repeatedly hearing complaints about Lucinda, and Bob will not act on them. Multiple employees have complaints about her, and complaints about what is at least perceived as Bob’s unfair favoritism of her and refusal to resolve these issues. Bob is not performing the function of a manager as it relates to Lucinda. We need to find a way to have Bob treat her objectively or we can no longer continue to allow him to manage her.”

    Make that the issue, not nepotism. It’s not about nepotism per se, it’s about this specific situation and Bob’s specific handling of it.

    1. Ben Post author

      Rantelle asked me to add in her comment for everyone to see her follow up anonymously:

      Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to my quandary about nepotism at work.

      @Alison, thanks for the suggestions. Though perhaps not nearly as eloquently as you phrase things, I have actually done all that–hence my frustration. But I think you are right to generalize the conversation, because as it happens, there is favoritism beyond that shown to the wife.

      @Daniel, thanks for the reminder that these issues are almost universal. It makes me feel a tiny bit better.

      @Leon, interesting perspective.

      @Frannyo, neither the hubby or wife are close to failing because there are no consequences, because there is a power differential between employees and management, and because people are scared of Bob.

      @Chris, I think you could be very right. The CEO doesn’t seem willing to recognize there is a problem, much less act to correct things.

      Thanks again, Rantelle

  2. Alison Green / Ask a Manager

    Also, if your CEO refuses to act once you present it in these stark terms, point out that he’s going to lose good employees (and harm the morale of other good employees) because he’s unwilling to hold Bob accountable. And if he still refuses to act, then you have a wimpy and/or naive and/or delusional CEO, and I have to believe this isn’t the only thing it’s impacting.

  3. Chris Ferdinandi - Renegade HR

    I’d seriously consider quitting. Sounds like you’ve talked to your CEO about it in clear terms a few times and he or she isn’t getting it. I’d leave and go to an organization that does.

  4. Daniel Rose

    I wouldn’t be so hasty as to leave. As others have suggested, you need to address this in a frank and honest manner with “Bob’s” manager, the CEO.
    Nepotism happens everywhere, and you are kidding yourself if you think structured policies really change that to a great extent.
    There’s a wonderful quote by Larry Kersten – “Nepotism – We promote family values here almost as often as we promote family members.”

  5. leon Noone

    G’Day Ben,

    Your friend is in a spot isn’t he…or she? I’ve been in and around HR for over forty years. One of the things I’ve learned is that the HR pro is absolutely not the company policeman, father confessor, moral arbiter or employee advocate. You are not there to represent aggrieved employees to management.

    You are there to help managers to achieve their job goals in the same way as any other support specialist e.g. accountant ,marketing expert or whatever.

    If you want to play company priest, join an appropriate religious order. HR specialists do not exist as shoulders for dissatisfied employees to cry on.

    Managers must manage. Carrying the can for disgruntled employees undermines the authority of the manager . It leads inevitably to the HR person clashing with, in this case, the husband. You are there to support him not undermine him or tell him how to do his job unless he seeks your advice. That’s the CEOs job.

    Two things: express your concerns to the CEO and suggest that he should monitor the situation closely. Secondly, stop encouraging employees to bring their problems to you unless they have first spoken to their manager and tried to sort out the issue. That’s the manager’s job, not the job of the HR specialist.I know. I faced exactly this situation both as an employee/manager and a consultant.

    I’ll say it again. You are not part of The Great Employee Relations Crusade Led By The HR Brigade. That applies wherever you ply your trade.

    I suggest to your friend that continuing down the current path will eventually lead to he or she being distrusted by all managers; not a healthy role for a HR specialist. Maybe Chris F is right. Resign and find a position more suited to your interventionist and ideological nature.

    That’s my two bobs worth


  6. Frannyo

    Ah, nepotism. The third rail of a healthy HR career.

    Leon has it right, though I’ll just add this thought:

    Sometimes you have to let people feel the pain, see the consequences of their actions. If HR is absorbing all the blows that come from an underperforming employee (the wife), nothing will change. The CEO has to feel significant pain before jeopardizing such a key relationship. Get out of the way, let the wife fail, let the CEO see it/feel the consequences, and read up on some Machiavelli while you wait for him to come ask your advice.

  7. Michael Brisciana

    If you’ve discussed your concerns with the CEO in serious terms and explained how this is affecting the company, and he isn’t taking action in any way, then I’d have to echo Chris’s suggestion (strongly). If the nepotism issues bother you (and I can certainly understand how they would), then leaving may be the best choice, with regard to personal integrity and peace of mind.

    My two cents … it is a question of values, or, said differently, it is a question of what is in the organization’s DNA. Some organizations thrive with loads of family members, others abhor the effects (for the reasons you’ve noted). If the CEO fails to act, then his values clearly come down on one side of the equation. It is unlikely than any amount of “reasoning” with him will change this. It this goes against your professional values, leaving the situation (if at all possible) may be the best course — so that you can move to an organization where your values are better aligned.

    I believe that organizations can change their DNA — but only if senior management REALLY wants to (and puts in tremendous time and effort to do so, at that). Doesn’t seem likely to occur here, given the conditions described.

    Best wishes,

    Michael Brisciana

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