Nepotism for my cousin …

In Michael Shea’s book, Influence: how to make the system work...he points out that to have power you need not hold it formally, you just need access and thus influence on the person who does.

If you are a Jane Austen fan you will know that Lady Catherine de Bourgh tried to prevent Mr. Darcy from marrying Elizabeth Bennet. She wanted him to marry his cousin rather than someone of lowly status. Of course she had his best interests as she saw them at heart. So how does something that sounds so positive end up as a major route to corruption in the world? Putting family first sounds good and proper. It has the connotations of nurture, development and growth, so when and how does it go wrong?

If you look at European history, marriage between different royal families was a significant feature of diplomacy. They were all related and preference was kept in the family. Oliver Cromwell may have given us the mother of all parliaments but you can be certain those who were elected were sufficiently well connected to ensure it! You don’t need to look very hard to find the family connections in the house today. In Michael Shea’s book, Influence: how to make the system work…he points out that to have power you need not hold it formally, you just need access and thus influence on the person who does. Where your office is with respect to the PM or the CEO matters.

On a small island pretty much all the natives are related to one another in some way or another. You can almost guarantee that any Cypriot you meet will have cousins all over the island and probably scattered around the rest of the world. This of course means being someone’s niece or nephew. It’s nice to be part of a family, to have people who will look out for us and have our best interests at heart, but just how far should this go? What, if any, limits should apply to looking after our best interests?

The whole purpose behind education and training is to equip the students to make their own way in the world and to develop appropriate skills, expertise and behaviour to, at least potentially, be the best they can be in their future world. Similarly, in business the principles of the free market are to enable competition to stimulate innovation and improvement so that both agile businesses and consumers benefit in terms of price, quality, value and profit. The survival of the fittest. It is in essence Darwinian. The weakest will not survive so that the species will.

What happens if you interfere with this?

Look at what happened in the old soviet block before Glasnost. The command and control economy demonstrably failed. Innovation was absent and supply and demand was permanently out of balance. Promotion was by preferment from within the party. China has learnt from and modified this to reap the benefits of the market economy whilst retaining a great deal of the older politics.

There are more evident but less extreme examples to learn from. If you recruit a less competent individual into a business, you will pay the price one way or another. Whatever their role, it will be performed less effectively than if you employed the better candidate. At best the business will carry them; at worst it will be damaged. Damaged by less innovation, poorer customer service, accidents and errors. Discover this early enough and you can rectify the situation by training, discipline or dismissal and replacement. You will have lost only time, momentum and perhaps staff morale, if you are lucky!

Unless, of course, this was not an accidental error or poor judgment during the recruitment process, but deliberate preference for a candidate to whom you are related. Nepotism in all its finery. Beware: the consequences I just described might be thought of as accidental and the damage relative in comparison to what might have been. But I know a Cypriot…let’s just say businessman… whose business is losing customers because his cousin fails to keep delivery promises believing his position in the business is unassailable. Customers do go elsewhere.

Nepotism is derived from the Italians for nephew and dates from a time when certain popes showed favour to their nephews, who were, most likely, their illegitimate sons. Now it is perfectly legitimate to favour or prefer someone, anyone, based on their skills and qualifications but not when others are better candidates for whatever the position or role. If nepotism drives the decision, then the favoured candidate is likely to be relatively less able and/or qualified. As well as the potential damage noted above we will also be depriving the better candidate of the job to which their training, skills, attitude and experience, makes them best suited. In other words, we are also corrupting the value of past effort and expense in equipping that person with the capabilities they now possess. It is yet another form of bias. Not racism or cronyism but familism.

So what? It cannot matter that much, surely?

If we are talking about a restaurant or a small family business which has to compete with many others then I would agree, it most likely, matters not.  But suppose it is a public service appointment in the police or a civil service department. Suppose it is in a monopoly utility supplier on this small island, does it matter then? Suppose it is a hospital doctor or judge? If your life and wellbeing depends on the application of the best skills and experience?

If the police do not do their jobs properly what recourse do we have? If the judiciary does not do its job properly what recourse do we have? If the electricity company is inefficient and over charges, what can we do about it? Nothing. Best not talk about banks and their 49% of non performing loans…perhaps the managers all lent to their uncles, brothers and cousins?

We saw how a fresh, experienced, talented individual could transform, in weeks, what had stagnated for years, in order to provide an efficient technical approval system during lockdown; Minister for Innovation, Kyriacos Kokkinos. But practically everywhere you look on this beautiful island antiquated, paper based, at best inefficient and at worst ineffective, systems are used which are in dire need of radical reform.

You may have a different opinion but I cannot help but ask how directly or indirectly this is the result of nepotism and employee selection based on family relationship rather than the best candidate for the job? It does of course mean that those with power are likely to retain it because those who have been preferred are unlikely to challenge those who gave them tenure. But on the principle of influence they might be listening to the wrong people, their relatives instead of experts.

Nepotism is not just relatively bad, it is as damaging and corrupting as racism, colour prejudice and any other biases. Of course, most corrupting by far is power, but that is why democracy and a regular change of representation and leadership are so important.

Next time you are recruiting, you might just want to make sure your cousin is actually the best candidate before you employ them.

O

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