How to Spot — and Expose — Nepotism in the Workplace

Woman in Job Interview

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Valerie Martinelli, MPA
Valerie Martinelli, MPA 184
Career & Leadership Development Expert
Nepotism is a form of discrimination in which friends and/or family members are hired for reasons that do not necessarily have anything to do with their experience, knowledge, or skills. Nepotism is not necessarily illegal either. However, it can create conflicts in the workplace and be troublesome if they are in a superior-subordinate relationship.
In these instances, the relationship may give rise to favoritism in the workplace — or at least some suspicions of it, the subordinate family member takes advantage of the situation by not working as hard or by not following organizational rules or orders of the superior family member, and the superior family member cannot or will not control the activities of the subordinate, such as administering discipline when necessary or providing constructive criticism on performance reviews.  

How Can You Spot Nepotism in the Workplace?

Nepotism can feel like favoritism and, at its worst, can become a form of discrimination in the workplace.

1. Qualifications

Nepotism rears its ugly head when the individual hired isn’t even qualified. So, was the person hired because she is qualified and an excellent fit for the position? Does she have years of experience in it or maybe a degree and is getting her career started?

2. Valuable Social and Intellectual Capital

Does this individual have valuable social and intellectual capital from years of grooming for the position or to take over the business? Then, in that case, it isn’t nepotism.

3. Evading Responsibility Without Consequences

It’s nepotism when family members are not disciplined for evading the responsibilities of their position.

4. Unequal Performance Reviews

It is also definitely nepotism when they are not receiving an equal performance review. In other words, if you may be provided with more critical feedback than the family member, even if she is the one in need of it.

5. Unprofessional Behavior

This is a red flag because if they are behaving in an unprofessional way and getting away with it then don’t respond in kind. Double down on your professionalism and resist acting out, slacking, telling someone off, or gossiping with coworkers who could repeat your words all will come back to haunt you later.

6. Being Overlooked Regularly

If you are overlooked regularly, say, for a specific project, promotion, or raise, for a less qualified employee then it is nepotism. In this case, it can make it that much harder to recognize your own accomplishments.

7. Not Enforcing Documented Guidelines

If there are clear, documented guidelines, such as in an employee handbook, that are not being followed for family members. This provides a strong case for nepotism in the workplace because handbooks are provided for employees to follow. If you’re being disciplined too harshly or not getting a chance for opportunities, you are facing discrimination.

8. Family Members Do Not Work Their Way Up

This also goes beyond just your favoritism because it hinders your ability to climb the career ladder in your workplace and stunts your career growth.

9. Family Members Are Earning More, Maybe Even with Less Experience

Equal pay is an important policy, not just for budgeting purposes, but also for employee morale. Inequal pay cannot be kept a secret. Here's more on how to address unequal pay in the workplace.
So, if you are currently dealing with some of these situations, what can you do? Let’s look at how you can call it out – without losing your job.

How Can You Expose Nepotism in the Workplace? 

There are ways to discretely call out nepotism in the workplace without hurting your own job. Here are five tips to follow if you choose to do so.

1. Document Any Instances of Perceived Nepotism

If you plan on speaking to HR when you realize that your situation goes beyond your boss playing favoritism, it is best to have notes of important elements. Generic complaints will not get your case very far, so be sure to have details such as dates of exchanges, dialogues, and other circumstances regarding any events.

2. Gather Your Coworker’s Experiences and Impressions

However, this must be done without raising any red flags. Try doing so with some casual banter at first. Intertwine other cases of nepotism in the workplace into your conversations and ask probing questions regarding workplace happiness, workload, and treatment from superiors.

3. Prepare for a Possible Backlash

It is important to prepare for the worst as well. If you intend to speak to HR, then be sure that your performance is top-notch just in case of a possible backlash. Remember, this would make you a whistleblower and it could make you a target for extra scrutiny, unfair evaluations, and not-so-great assignments.

4. Schedule a Confidential Appointment with HR

You may have reached the time when to circumvent usual procedures, particularly if your complaint involves any direct supervisors.

5. Take Advantage of Therapeutic Outlets

There are a lot of myths about therapy, but it is important to maintain your own stress levels and allow yourself to have time alone to unwind.
By calling out nepotism in the workplace, you are calling out discrimination, which negatively impacts employee morale, job performance, and relationships among employees. It may not be an easy step to make but it will make you a bolder, braver, more confident employee for standing up for what’s right and fighting for others. 
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Valerie Martinelli, MPA, coaches mid-level and senior-level executives to land new roles, cultivate their careers, and earn a massive salary increase through 1:1 & group coaching & strategy.  She is  also a leadership coach for women and has helped women discover their leadership potential by reaching new levels of success in their careers.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for dealing with nepotism in the workplace? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!