Even if they can’t define it, most employees know when they see nepotism negatively affecting their organization. It might be the under-qualified employee who was hired because a family member recommended him or the lazy worker who isn’t fired because he happens to be related to the boss.
But nepotism might not be as simple as those descriptions, explained SIOP Member Robert G. Jones, editor of Nepotism in Organizations(Routledge Academic), the newest addition to SIOP’s Organizational Frontiers series.
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“A common definition of nepotism is the provision of advantage on the basis of family membership,” explained Jones,a professor in the psychology department at Missouri State University. “However, this also breaks down at the definition of ‘perceived versus actual’ provision of advantage, the definition of ‘advantage,’ and so on. It is a lot more complex than this definition would suggest.”
Unfortunately, Jones explained, very little research has been performed in the I-O community on the topic of nepotism.
“It seems almost bizarre when one considers the prevalence of the phenomena,” he said. “But there appears to be only one other book, which inspired this one—In Praise of Nepotism by Adam Bellow—that has been written on the topic.”
Nepotism in Organizations seeks to fill the void in research by defining nepotism through the lens of human behaviors and psychological characteristics in 293 pages, with a final chapter that attempts to provide a “fairly comprehensive, but parsimonious stab at it,” Jones explained.
The book examines traditional themes in human resource management (legal issues, decision making and managerial roles, career and job choice, values and commitment, conflict) through the lens of family relationships in organizations. (View the table of contents here!)
Anecdotally, nepotism appears to be a common phenomenon, Jones explained, making it an important phenomenon for organizations to consider.
“Although the I-O literature has done nothing to establish its prevalence, there is overwhelming evidence of nepotism’s apparent existence in such things as widely used ‘anti-nepotism’ policies, many historical examples, and my own experience that everyone seems to have stories about it in their own lives,” Jones explained. “Cultural differences are explored in some of the chapters of this book, but we have no rigorous evidence to date about cross-cultural differences.”
Jones said the prevalence of nepotism is obvious when taking anecdotal evidence into account, but the effects are not so clear.
“Everyone I have talked with can call examples to mind—mostly pointed toward the unfairness of nepotism,” he explained. “But the book tried to remain more descriptive—neutral—and there are more ‘positive’ examples of family engagement.”
Such examples include a list of companies whose stock fared well relative to their competition during the 2008-2010 recession, explained Jones, such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Ford, O'Reilly, the Limited stores, and others, all started as family firms and that have substantial family ownership.
“The question of efficacy of nepotism is almost more relevant than prevalence, given the apparent prevalence of family relationships,” he added. “Nepotism is actually the backdrop against which our attempts at egalitarian decision making are based. For example, Frank Schmidt's comparison with ‘0’ of the correlation between selection predictor and performance criteria is not the correct comparison—it is the other actual bases for hiring decisions, such as nepotism—which appears to have been the real basis for much of this for a very long time—that should be compared.”
The book's authors demonstrate the importance of understanding nepotism in such disparate areas as organizational commitment and case law dealing with anti- and pro-nepotism policies, Jones said.
“When asked if nepotism is a problem, most would answer unconditionally ‘yes,’” he said. “I am not so sure nepotism is a problem so much as I-O psychology's almost complete lack of research on something so prevalent in the organizations we try to serve.”
What about those successful companies such as Walmart and the Limited?
“The answer is, we don't know if nepotism is harmful or helpful,” Jones explained. “Efficacy is a huge question that needs to be addressed before we support ‘anti-nepotism’ or ‘pro-nepotism’ policies. Bridgette Harder's chapter in the book helps to move us toward a model that will help inform our answers.”
Regardless of whether it negatively or positively affects an organization, Jones said nepotism does exist and needs to be studied.
“It is pervasive,” he said. “If we want to understand where we are working, we need to understand nepotism’s nature, predictors, and consequences—and we have almost totally missed it to date.”
Jones hopes Nepotism in Organizations will be a step toward reversing this trend.
“There is no other book and almost no research literature on this question,” he said. “Anyone who wants to address organizations as they are really composed needs to read this book.”
Robert G. Jones is professor of psychology and department head at Missouri State University. After a first career in music and banking, Bob returned to school to get his PhD in industrial-organization psychology from The Ohio State University in 1992. In this second career, Bob and his students, colleagues, and clients have dealt with a broad range of issues in selection and assessment. Most of this work has focused on understanding and managing the bases for applied, person-perception-based assessments, including emotive perception and prejudices. He has addressed these issues in various publications, numerous applied settings, and classrooms in the U.S., Australia, and the Netherlands. As Book Review Editor of Personnel Psychology (1994-2004), Bob had the pleasant task of reading lots of books, including the ones that inspired this one.