Nepotism: “Everything’s Relative”
“Everything’s Relative” is a fictional story about a person involved in a situation that illustrates ethical choices.  The story helps us to recognize ethical issues and reminds us how important one person’s actions can be in maintaining a company’s reputation for fair, honest business practices.

 Pierre’s project was in trouble.  His team was working practically around the clock and still the timeline showed that they’d miss their deadline by more than a week.

“We need help,” Pierre told his boss, Courtney.  “And we need it fast.”

Courtney authorized Pierre to hire a contractor to ease the crunch.  “Take your time,” she warned.  “You want to hire the right person, not just a warm body.”

Even though Pierre knew she was right, he felt impatient.  Of all people, Courtney knew that time was the one thing they didn’t have.  Pierre spread the word that he was in search of temporary help, and the next day one of his team members approached him.

“She’s the perfect candidate,” Mike said.  “Experienced, a team player, and looking for work. I have her resume right here.”

Pierre eyed Patricia’s resume and smiled.  This was indeed a prime candidate.  His only question for Mike was, “When can she start?”

But Courtney was still cautious, insisting that Pierre follow a “by the book” hiring process.  A job requisition was filed with an approved contract company who had provided several other contractors already working on the job.  When candidates were submitted for review, Patricia was one of several candidates interviewed.  She proved to be the strongest based on her experience and availability.

There was only one problem.

“I assume Mike mentioned that I’m his sister?” Patricia asked.

Pierre shook his head.  “No.  No, he didn’t mention that.”

“Oh,” Patricia said.  “Well, I wanted to be sure you knew.  I hope it won’t be a problem.”

Pierre ran over the issues in his mind.  Sure, Mike and Patricia would be working on the same project, but Patricia wouldn’t be reporting to him and they were focused on different areas of the project.  And besides, Mike would be spending more and more time at the customer site as the project neared completion.  Pierre decided there was no need to disclose this information to anyone.  He was confident that Patricia was the best candidate and that her work would stand on its own; the fact that she was Mike’s sister wouldn’t even be a factor to consider.  He authorized her to be hired at a rate of pay that was fair for someone with her experience.

Patricia turned out to be a major contributor who seemed to get along with everyone.  Over the next few weeks, Pierre’s project regained momentum, and after documenting her achievements he decided to put Patricia in charge of a key milestone that involved four other people.  Pierre was reviewing his timelines and breathing a sigh of relief that things were back on schedule when Courtney stopped by his office.

“Pierre,” she said, refusing his offer to take a seat, “did you know that Patricia and Mike are siblings?”

Pierre felt his neck turn red and he swallowed hard before answering.  “Yes.  She told me during her interview.  But I didn’t think it was a problem, and I still don’t.”

Courtney shook her head.  “It’s a big problem, Pierre.  I’ve just had a call from HR, and someone lodged a complaint of nepotism.  The complaint says that she’s been getting preferential treatment.  That she’s getting paid more than the other contractors and is managing a segment of the project that she’s too new to handle.”

“What? She’s paid what she’s worth, and she’s in charge because she’s been doing a great job.”

“Well, that isn’t how it looks, Pierre.  It looks like we’re hiding something.  This person went so far as to suggest to HR that Patricia is padding Mike’s time, saying he’s in the field when he’s really not.”

“That’s just not true! She has no access to his time sheets, they’re not even working on the same part of the project.  We can straighten this out, just let me talk to HR.”

“You’ll have your chance, three o’clock today.”  Courtney sighed.  “I wish you’d talked to them before you hired Patricia, Pierre.  I was ready to offer her a full time job as soon as something opened up.  But the way things are now, I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”

Question & Answer

Why was Courtney so insistent about hiring temporary help “by the book”?

To avoid being accused of nepotism — favoritism shown because of a personal relationship — it’s important to follow prescribed procedures in any hiring process. An open hiring process and a fair and objective assessment of all candidates are essential.  It not only helps to select the best candidates, but makes it clear to others that the candidates who were selected are well qualified for the job.

What should Mike have done differently from the start?

Mike should have told Pierre that Patricia was his sister, so Pierre could have determined ahead of time whether there were any issues.  And even if Pierre decided to hire Patricia, he should have disclosed her relationship to HR and to other team members.

What are some reasons for Mike’s failure to disclose that Patricia was his sister?

Mike may have been concerned that she would not be hired if people knew she was related to him, or even that he might be reassigned. It’s common for people to have relatives, spouses, and friends within your industry or field of expertise. Some locations are small and “everyone knows everyone” and their abilities.  However, it’s always best to disclose any relationships. When decisions are made “in the sunshine,” ill feelings and complaints can be avoided.

Should Pierre have refused to hire Patricia?

Many of Pierre’s rationalizations about hiring Patricia were actually correct.  She wasn’t reporting directly to Mike, and they were working on different segments of the project.  Refusing to hire a talented person who is perfect for the job just because she was Mike’s sister is not necessarily the right solution. However, if Pierre had checked with HR and been open with the other team members, Patricia’s hiring would not have been open to suspicion.

 What specific facts can Pierre provide to HR?

He can tell them that a hiring process was followed and that she is a good candidate hired at a wage comparable to her experience.  He documented her work prior to giving her additional responsibilities so he should be able to justify her added responsibility.  He should also be able to prove that she has no access to Mike’s time cards.

Keys to Remember

– Ensure that you always adhere strictly to the company’s procedures for hiring vendors or employees.

– It’s fine to recommend qualified friends or relatives to work for or provide products to our company.  Issues arise when you are involved in the selection or hiring process, or if you will be working with that person.  Directly supervising a spouse, relative, or close friend is against company policy.

– Always disclose any relationship that you have, relative or friend, with anyone from a contracted (vendor) company.  Your disclosure allows management to keep all decision processes transparent and does not necessarily limit your own ability to work on a project with that vendor.

– In cases where relatives or friends hired or used as contractors, fair and objective assessment of all candidates, in an open hiring process, is essential.  This helps others to know that candidates who were selected are well qualified for the job.

– Once hired, qualified candidates who are related to other workers must be treated fairly and held equally accountable to performance standards.  Even if you are careful to separate personal issues from business, the situation may create an appearance of favoritism that affects morale and trust.