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The Nepotism Problem Is Alive and Well

August 19, 2003
Related Topics: Ethics, Policies and Procedures, Featured Article

Nepotism--anti-nepotism, actually--policies have fallen out of favor in many organizations in recent years, due in part to the desire to accommodate dual-career couples and to increase the size of the talent pool from which they can recruit. Nepotism policies were often dismissed as "old-fashioned" and not necessary in contemporary organizations.

    The result was that nepotism policies were either rewritten or, in some cases, eliminated altogether. The new "contemporary" policies typically allow family members to work in the same company but restrict them from supervising or being in a position to direct or influence the work of a family member.

    Fair enough. But as often happens, once relaxed, policies tend to be ignored and viewed as no longer important. Exceptions become commonplace and are made with little thought to their implications.

Dysfunctional families
    Recent events in college athletics serve as a reminder of what we should already know: nepotism can (still) contribute to dysfunctional behavior in organizations. It has become fashionable for college coaches to hire their sons as their assistant coaches, even though most colleges have nepotism policies. A partial list includes Bobby Knight (Texas Tech University), Lou Holtz (University of South Carolina), Jim Harrick (University of Georgia), Tom Penders (George Washington University), Mike Jarvis (St. John’s University) and Mike Price (two sons) (recently of the University of Alabama).

    While not all nepotistic situations result in problems, consider that during the last college basketball season, the University of Georgia and St. Bonaventure University were both engulfed in scandals involving unethical behavior and nepotism. At the University of Georgia, head coach Jim Harrick’s son, an assistant coach to his father, was accused of providing credit to players for courses they had never attended.

    In another incident, St. Bonaventure University asked its president, Dr. Robert Wickenheiser, to resign and fired its head basketball coach. The school also accepted the resignation of the assistant basketball coach (President Wickenheiser’s son), both for allowing an academically ineligible transfer student to participate on the basketball team and for pressuring administrators to break academic rules governing course withdrawals in order to allow players to maintain their athletic eligibility.

Sound management practices
were not applied, and the university presidents know better.

No compelling reason
    Given these incidents, one must ask if university presidents and administrators can articulate a compelling reason for allowing fathers to hire and supervise their own sons. Do they believe that a nepotism policy is a useful management tool protecting the interests of their universities against potential ethical violations, conflicts of interest and self-dealing? Do they consider the granting of an exception to such policies to be a mere bargaining chip to be given away in negotiations to hire or retain a head coach? Is there a shortage of qualified applicants for assistant coaching positions? One must conclude that no compelling reason exists for such an exception to the policy.

    Nepotism can affect the judgment of administrators and coaches (or managers, in the case of a business) in ways that might undermine the ethical standards and integrity of the university. Obviously, nepotism does not always lead to problems, but it can and does contribute in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways to a pattern of--at best--special treatment and--at worst--unethical behaviors aimed at improving the college’s chances of winning more games.

    In its recently released final report, St. Bonaventure’s Basketball Program Review Special Committee, charged with investigating the incidents at the school, noted that Skip Saal, vice president for academic affairs, told the committee that, given the president’s "obvious connection with his [assistant coach] son," he was "uncomfortable being questioned by the president about the fairness of his original decision to enforce the withdrawal policy." Following this discussion, Saal agreed to change the student’s grade from an F to an Incomplete, which the committee found to "constitute special treatment" for the athlete.

    Even more shocking was the report’s conclusion that President Wickenheiser "with the assistance of his son sent an e-mail to the athletic director in which he [Wickenheiser] interpreted the applicable NCAA Bylaws regarding transfer [and concluded] that the young man met the basic requirements concerning transfer eligibility," when in fact it was clear that he did not.

Better judgment
    The waiving or ignoring of nepotism policies sends a message to the coaches and other members of the university community. The message is that sound management practices were not applied, even in sensitive areas where ethical standards may be at risk. The university presidents know better. They just need someone, be it state legislators or boards of trustees, to ensure that sound management practices are followed and that policies intended to protect the interests and integrity of the university are adhered to.

    Business leaders can learn from the university experience and utilize better judgment when making policy exceptions within their own organizations. They need to understand the reason for the existence of nepotism policies (and if one doesn’t exist, ask why not) and carefully consider the risks involved in making exceptions to them. They must then communicate the reasons for any exceptions so that people know what is expected.

    Above all, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that nepotism isn’t a potential problem, that policies governing this practice are not needed, or that they do not have to be enforced in contemporary organizations.

Recent Articles by Dennis Lee, Ph.D.

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