Ask The Lawyer By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq. Keeping it “All in the Family”
KEEPING IN ‘ALL IN THE FAMILY’ HAS CO-WORKERS FUMING
QUESTION: The company I work for recently posted an opening for a project manager. I applied for the job, as did a couple of other people I know, all of whom have experience in project management. Instead, our employer hired a young relative of one of the vice presidents, a kid who doesn’t even have a college degree. Worse, several of us are being asked to train him on how to do the job. Isn’t it against the law to hire people just because they’re your relative? We’re so steamed about this, we’re all looking for new jobs.
ANSWER: Hiring relatives or friends – known as nepotism – is not against the law in the private sector, and often flourishes, despite restrictions, in the public sector.
A study by a pair of researchers from the Census Bureau and Amazon.com found that it is very common for fathers and sons to work for the same employer at least point during their careers and, to a lesser degree, for fathers and daughters to share employers. In 2010, some 9.6 percent of teenage boys “from a home where father was present” shared an employer with that father. By age 30, approximately 22 percent of these sons would work for the same company as their respective fathers (the number was only 13 percent for daughters). The study did not examine the number of mothers and their children who worked for the same employer (maybe because mothers in the workforce still have less clout than their male counterparts).
Despite this indication that nepotism is prevalent here, America ranked 63rd out of 125 on a 2006 survey by the World Economic Forum on the impact of nepotism on countries around the world. On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being “enormous influence” and 7 being “no influence,” the U.S. scored 4.2. Finland, with a score of 6.4 was the least affected by nepotism; family connections were pretty much required for work in Zambia, which scored 1.2. Nepotism does not appear in a more recent report by the World Economic Forum.
Government has been reluctant to ask owners and employees of businesses in the private sector to avoid hiring relatives. This could be, in part, because – despite some notable excepts in the interest of equality and safety – the government is reluctant to tell owners how to run their business. And, in part, it’s because nepotism is not necessarily bad: Parents usually try to do what they can for their children, whether it’s providing exposure to the workforce by giving a kid a first job, training a son or daughter so they can take over the family business, or just ensuring a child receives an education that will prepare them for the world of work. And, of course, hiring relatives can sometimes be a way for employers to save money, as kith and kin might be willing to work for less to help out a family member. It’s pretty common for a business to hire the son or daughter of a co-worker, and often works out well.
(Rules in the public sector often forbid the employment of relatives in the same department or in the same chain-of-command; but according to the Trump Department of Justice, such rules do not apply to a president’s selection of his staff. Former President Trump hired both his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, as special advisors.)
But, as in your case, when a large company hires someone’s unqualified family member over a qualified applicant, trouble, and possibly a lawsuit, can result.
While nepotism in the private sector is not illegal, discrimination is. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin or religion. Other laws, both state and federal, forbid employment discrimination based on marital status, height, weight, age, or disability. A disgruntled employee might well cry foul and threaten to sue a company that hires an unqualified white male relative, for example, over a well-qualified Black female. While the company would most likely defeat such a lawsuit by showing that the hiring decision was based on a family relationship and not race, etc., the optics are problematic, and responding to a lawsuit can be time-consuming and expensive.
Nepotism of the kind you describe can also be bad for company morale. What’s the use of trying to do your best, if the company is going to name a family member with limited experience be your boss? A company that allows nepotism of this kind to flourish can expect to see a lot of turnover.
However, many companies are aware of the perils of hiring family members – qualified or not – and have specific rules against nepotism. You should check your Employee Handbook and, if a rule was violated, report the violation to your HR department. If that’s not an option, grit your teeth, and check Indeed.com.
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ASK THE LAWYER
By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
GWINN LEGAL PLLC
900 Wilshire Drive, Suite 104
Troy, MI 48084
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