Is It Workplace Nepotism, or Would They Behave That Way Anyway?

For all of us who own businesses and employ or have employed family members, we know the warnings people give us about hiring friends and family. Yet there are as many pros as cons, and for small business owners, it is often their succession plan and dream to leave their legacy entrusted to the next generation.

Nepotism in business, defined by Webster and others, is the practice of making workplace decisions based on relationships. This can include hiring or promoting a relative or friend, even if there are other qualified candidates for the position.

The most common construction workplace nepotism is the hiring of family members, friends from childhood or university, and past co-workers from prior work affiliations. Unlike the public arena, where nepotism is used (most commonly by politicians) to help position people in jobs for control or financial and political gain, the typical driving factors behind nepotism in the private small business workplace, particularly construction, are having people you trust and care about surrounding you and helping your loved ones with a fulfilling career. It is often the fastest and easiest hiring solution, and if they are inheriting the business in the will anyway, the fact they want to work there is always a plus. These thought processes often lead to individuals in positions, especially as the company grows, who are less motivated and less qualified than others in the same position or even positions subordinate to them. The other obvious implications of nepotism in the workplace are the attitudes of entitlement of those who share the bloodline or were chosen by relationship over qualifications and with a defined hiring process.

Yet, over the years, I have seen those with no previous relationship with ownership before being hired be selected as key men or owners of the firm because of their qualifications, loyalty, and the commitment they establish not only for the owner themselves but also for any family or friends employed at the firm. From a financial perspective, even when equity is not an option, I have witnessed many employees earn far more than they would if they owned their own businesses and obtain the same status as those with equity in the organization. I can even name several companies off the top of my head where the dedicated apprentice or employee became the owner and not the owner’s next of kin.

What are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to nepotism in the construction business workplace?

  • Because they are family or friends, they will get the final word with the boss or supervisor.
  • Because they are family, they own the business.
  • Because they are family or friends, they can do no wrong in the sight of ownership.
  • Even if I speak up, ownership will not listen to me or do anything about it because of their personal relationship or favoritism for the person.
  • I am wasting my time working here because family/friends will reap the benefit in the long run.
  • What the family or friend said about their status, or the owner is true or about to happen.

While the above may hold true at times within your current employment, you have the power through professional communication to ensure you get a say, have your voice be heard, and open the opportunity to earn the respect, admiration, and recommendation from your owner to be as esteemed as others who may have a bloodline connection or previous relationship with them. How do you do this?

  1. Recognize that all business owners, whether it appears that way or not, are focused on staying in business, servicing their clients, making payroll, and keeping ahead of overhead costs. Regardless of family or friends being the culprits, owners want to be informed of the potential risks to sustaining and growing their business. Most want the business to continue to thrive long after they have departed as founders or owners.
  2. Inquire when you suspect nepotism as to the owner’s/supervisor’s understanding of the perpetrator’s role within the company and the authority that accompanies their position, including their authority over you and your role and responsibilities at the company. Organizational charts and job outlines are tools to assist with visual backup to discussions.
  3. Process realistic timelines when you hear things said. Family and friends say things like, “I will be taking over the company,” or, “I am being promoted to . . .” or, “I am getting . . .” and although that might have been discussed at gatherings outside of work for the future, I assure you, if it is recognizable that they are not ready, even if the owner gives them a new title, the authority they have will be measured and timed, with a safety net established, to protect the business and prevent a mass exodus from the company.
  4. Ask the right questions of the right people. Never ask a co-worker or associate or anyone who doesn’t have the authority to change someone’s title or hire/fire within your organization if something is valid regarding another’s behavior or grandiose talk. Verify—don’t justify, perceive, or assume anything.
  5. Respectfully ask questions of the perpetrator for validity. An example would be if they say they are being promoted, ask questions as to when will the official announcement be made to you and others by executive leadership. Why are you telling me this now? How did you get notified of this? Asking questions will help clarify the comment and often, indirectly, get a confession from the person if their comments are spoken in arrogance or to extort fear in you or to wield power they do not have over you.
  6. When a change is formally announced within your organization, especially if you are concerned about potential nepotism and you are feeling indifferent, insecure, or unsure, communicate to understand. First, show your support for the decision, then schedule the appropriate time to ask questions: Will my responsibilities change at the company? What should I expect to be different (good or bad) from your perspective with this change? Will this affect the career path that you have for me? The questions should be asked to understand and not to interrogate or cast doubt over your support for the decision.

It is important that you verify (communicate) and do not justify, assume, or succumb without formal substantiation from executive leadership, or you could be jeopardizing your career or the company’s sustainability through your passivity or naivety.

Employers, if you employ family or friends who socialize with you outside of work or go back many years or anyone who could portray nepotism to your other employees, having a clear organizational chart, job outlines, and processes in place will help manage misconceptions. Taking time to introduce everyone at the company to the organizational chart and the job outlines and authority granted within the organizational chart provides a point of reference to guide people back to the truth when someone within your organization, family or not, pulls unsubstantiated rank. A simple policy in place for notifying your whole organization and updating the organizational chart and anyone’s job outline or reporting structure that has changed helps all employees to rest knowing that even if someone says something, they can trust it is not official until formally updated and announced through the process.

Having employed family members over the years, I am grateful for my non-family employees who can discern and will ask if they need clarity on a situation or if behavioral issues need to be addressed—including family being out of the office or giving instruction outside of what was outlined—understanding there is a time, a place, and a plan for success with maintaining all relationships in the workplace, nepotistic or not!

Teddy Roosevelt said, “We should not forget that it will be just as important to our descendants to be prosperous in their time as it is to us to be prosperous in our time.”

With or without the family name, may you be a favored member of the company through communication, realistic expectations, and dedication to the whole team.

Suzanne Breistol


1 Comment

    Thanks Suzanne. What are your thoughts on how employees who are children of the company’s owner should address the owner? Should they refer to the owner like everyone else does, such as “Mr. Smith”, or “Jack”? Or is it okay for the children to refer to the owner as “Dad”?

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