Open Thinkering


The New Nepotism

Nepotism in action
Nepotism in action

Nepotism is a word which is ordinarily used pejoratively. That is to say, nobody wants to be accused of it.

nepotism, n. unfair preferment of or favouritism shown to friends, protégés, or others within a person’s sphere of influence.

The old version of nepotism was guilty of saying, “You’re my friend from the tennis club so I’m going to give you this unrelated opportunity”.

People were given jobs independent of aptitude or talent. It was all about connections and relationships within a very small network. It’s the reason sinecures were so common until the mid-20th century.

Nowadays we like to think we live in a meritocracy. Despite the modern origin of the word being satirical, we equate being meritocractic with ‘fairness’. We’re probably correct in that assumption.

However, the hiring practices this has led to are sub-optimal. I’m not sure there’s a single person who would design the system we’ve got if they were doing so from scratch.

Yes, it’s illegal in many jurisdictions to even ask on an application form about someone’s age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. This is a step forward for equality. Great! The really sad thing is that it often leads to bland mass of undifferentiated application instead of truly embracing diversity.

As a result, for better or worse, people have found ways to bypass stifiling recruitment practices. The New Nepotism says, “You’re my friend / former colleague from a previous project/organisation. We successfully created something awesome together, so I’m going to give you this related opportunity.”

I’m guilty of having received opportunities through New Nepotism. I’m also guilty of giving them. My point with this post is to say that we’ve got a twin-track system where one track is the direct result of the other. We look for colour and diversity through relationships that we’ve already established because CVs and application forms are so limp and lifeless.

Perhaps we could move beyond New Nepotism through a system like Open Badges? No two human beings are truly alike, so why should their credentials? As soon as we have a system that truly captures the value of people’s experiences, then we can hire based on talent and experience rather than who you’ve already happened to work with and know.

Image CC BY-NC Andy B

6 thoughts on “The New Nepotism

  1. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for this post – it’s had me thinking. I’m not sure I agree with your argument here but I do agree something is broken in the world of work. My feeling is that there are two underlying issues here and that nepotism and meritocracy are actually the workarounds. And as you suggest – both are flawed.

    The first big issue is that the very nature of work has changed. In my living memory there was a lot more physical labour required in the past than today. Work and the kinds of jobs that are available have rapidly transformed from a labour base to a knowledge base. A more essential requirement than “what can you do?” is now “what do you know?”. The jobs that required physical effort are disappearing or being farmed out to where labour is much cheaper. Gone are the jobs where work was simple – “pick thing up, move it over here, repeat”. Instead humans are required to do work that is significantly more complicated and complex. The requirement is knowledge, not labour.

    So the second issue is that despite this increasing complexity of work, the mechanism we use to manage work – Human Resources, is stuck thinking and managing work in a rudimentary and simplistic manner. It still treats a job as something simple where effort = outcome. In the case of labour that kind of equation might be possible, but when applied to knowledge isn’t applicable. The resume, and even to an extent credentials themselves (or maybe what they currently capture), are outdated, unreliable and the verge of being useless. Current HR practices are predicated on cookie cutter responses that do little if anything to address merit let alone diversity. No, instead HR tries to simplify work and hiring down to the point where you don’t need anyone to decide who the best candidate is, just tick this box. I’m sure we all know how effective that can be in getting the right person into the right job.

    So not only has the work changed but the mechanisms in which we match people to work are ineffective and inefficient. This is where I think ideas and practices like nepotism and meritocracy fit – as coping mechanisms for this change. They allow us to find ways around the system, but they don’t actually address the deficiencies of the system.

    Yes I’ve now made the problem bigger than Ben Hur but quite often spotting the symptoms is the easy bit 🙂

    1. What a great comment, Tim! (and I appreciate you making it here rather than on Medium)

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you say:

      “So not only has the work changed but the mechanisms in which we match people to work are ineffective and inefficient. This is where I think ideas and practices like nepotism and meritocracy fit – as coping mechanisms for this change. They allow us to find ways around the system, but they don’t actually address the deficiencies of the system.”

      Thanks for helping clarify things in my mind! 🙂

  2. Hi Doug, read your post with interest and I’m re-thinking one of the product features in our people search engine based on your comments.

    One the the features we had, but for various reasons switched off was a way to filter people based on your social network – so for example if I’m searching for a project manager it would look at my Twitter connections and comments and work out that we know each other and if you happened to work with someone use this to boost the people to the top of the search results or at least increase the weighting on their profile.

    The reason that we implemented this feature was when there is so much choice as in searching hundreds of millions of people we imagined being able to de-risk the hiring process by finding previous evidence of working together with someone you trust.

    The way our search works at present is purely based on skill matching so those most qualified appear at the top – maybe this is the way it should remain…

  3. I forgot to add that the ultimate aim was to map these hidden networks which exist and thereby provide transparency which is useful in lots of ways not just in hiring.

    The outcome of this would be that companies would be able to filter by those outside of their employees sphere of influence, thereby increasing diversity so it could also have a more positive outcome depending on how people use it.

    1. Thanks for the comment(s) Dom. 🙂

      Perhaps one way to do this would be to filter both by those you follow and those following you. You could even throw in those regularly tweeting on a regular hashtag into the mix!

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