018 – Is Nepotism always harmful? Part 1

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
018 – Is Nepotism always harmful? Part 1


Santiago Borio interviews David Stern on the issue of nepotism. They analyse a common definition of the term, look into examples where it’s harmful and examples where it may even be necessary. They consider how IDEMS is a nepotic organisation and what that means in a wider context. This is the first part of a two part episode on a complex issue that can sometimes have deep social consequences.

[00:00:00] Santiago: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I am Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow, and I’m here with David Stern, a Founding Director of IDEMS. Hi David.

[00:00:16] David: Hi Santiago. I’m looking forward to another interesting discussion today. What are we on?

[00:00:22] Santiago: Today we are doing a kind of response to the response to your initial talk with Danny the other founding director of IDEMS. You mentioned our colleague Francis quite a bit in your discussion with Danny. Then Lucie and yourself did a critical review of that conversation, or aspects of that conversation.

[00:00:51] David: In particular dealing with issues around, for example, the question of were we being exploitative? And how does that relate to exploitation and this sort of thing?

[00:01:01] Santiago: Exactly, and one of the key points that was identified was were we being exploitative when giving opportunities or giving benefits of some kind to people in Africa? And the topic for discussion today is nepotism. I heard that review, and…

[00:01:26] David: We only took him on because we knew him and because we knew him well and we’d worked with him and so on. So you’re right, this is a form of nepotism.

[00:01:34] Santiago: Yes, and we had this conversation about nepotism before and I think in many ways IDEMS is a very nepotic organization and it hits me personally, but I think that we need to be very careful, we’ve discussed many times how every single word counts. So what is nepotism first of all?

[00:01:59] David: And I think, let’s be clear, and I’m keen for you to go into that definition so that we can discuss this. I also want to bring out some examples that I think are sort of nepotism, but which I see as being very positive. The example in academia that I have is couples being able to get jobs together because otherwise they couldn’t move to a city to work at the university. I have a colleague who has benefited from such a scheme in a way where otherwise him and his wife would always have been working in different cities.

[00:02:32] Santiago: And there’s all sorts of examples where nepotism is a good thing. But I’m from Argentina. I’ve seen the worse side of nepotism way too often. So maybe that’s why I picked it up so much and had this discussion with you. But let’s get to the definition and then let’s analyse whether it’s positive or negative, and the different contexts, and see how, how IDEMS is or isn’t nepotic, and whether it’s beneficial or not. So, I simply googled the word nepotism definition’s from Oxford languages: “nepotism is a practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives, friends, or associates, especially by giving them jobs”. It’s a very clear, concise definition.

[00:03:20] David: Absolutely.

[00:03:22] Santiago: The word favouring is underlined in this definition.

[00:03:28] David: This is, I think, critical to understanding what I would see as elements of context in which nepotism is clearly bad. And I think that we should start there, because nepotism is a big problem in a number of different cases. And it’s not just in low resource environments, although that is where I know it being problematic more than I know it elsewhere. But even in high resource environments, the benefits of coming from a wealthy family and getting opportunities of experience and exposure that you wouldn’t get otherwise can be absolutely clear, and it can be really unfair in many different ways.

[00:04:12] Santiago: So, examples, bad things, or dangerous cases of nepotism. Go on.

[00:04:20] David: Well, if you have government jobs, which are prized jobs, and which, lead to a comfortable life, lead to opportunities in a way which is clearly desirable for those applying for it, and you have a lot of qualified candidates, and you bypass the qualified candidates for less qualified candidates because you’re favouring a family member. This is clearly negative for society.

[00:04:50] Santiago: Not just family member.

[00:04:53] David: Yes, that’s right.

[00:04:54] Santiago: Friends, associates as well.

[00:04:57] David: Exactly, because you’re exerting your influence. And there’s issues around this, I think, which are really interesting, even in the US recently, with things that happened. Even the appointment of the judiciary in certain ways, and how that’s sort of playing out in interesting ways.

Now, that is a whole different process. But you are seeing we’re having political influence favouring, interfering with government processes and when you want the independence of judiciary from your politics, this is an example. Yeah.

[00:05:33] Santiago: Another example in high resource environments, we are going through the COVID inquiry at the moment and the allocation of PPE contracts.

[00:05:42] David: Exactly

[00:05:43] Santiago: That’s friends, associates, benefiting potentially, but I’m not going to comment whether it is or it isn’t until there’s a…

[00:05:53] David: Absolutely, but I think what you can without a doubt agree is awarding such a contract to friends, personal contacts, family, which is highly profitable, highly beneficial, there’s no public benefit which is coming from that. This is something which is, which is obviously negative.

[00:06:13] Santiago: And in some cases there were potentially… what’s the opposite of benefit?

[00:06:18] David: Well, as I understand it, there were some people who weren’t set up to deliver it, who didn’t have the skills or the competence, who delivered faulty materials and so on. And so there was danger. And this is exactly where you need really careful structures in place to guard against that.

[00:06:34] Santiago: And I would like to highlight an example in Argentina, where I’m from. There was a senior minister who gave a senior job in the main water provider to his wife who made a mess of it and left it in tatters. And it’s really sad. It’s really sad. When there were quite a lot of highly qualified people who could have done a fantastic job of it.

[00:07:14] David: And this is where it is such an important issue, and it’s such a difficult issue, and there is no doubt that nepotism in these cases where you are gaining personal benefit at the expense of there being good services, good outcomes. And that’s one of the key things, that it’s this element of favour, and I would argue that where it is clearly negative, is when that favour is a win lose. You are benefiting personally, or the person who you’re favouring is benefiting personally, and the outcomes are then losing from that favour.

So let’s take a couple of those positive examples.

[00:08:02] Santiago: Hang on, let’s transition to it properly because, highly capable, influential people very often associate themselves with highly capable people as well. So, does that mean that if you know someone who’s highly capable, should you not put them in a position of influence, should you not favour them in any shape or form?

[00:08:35] David: Well, well, let’s, let’s get on to that by actually looking at sort of the nepotism in some sense, the positive cases as I would see it, where you do have favour, but it’s something which leads to positive outcomes more generally.

So you’re right, there may be an element of if you surround yourself with highly capable people, then actually using those networks is important. And this is something which has happened for time immemorial. Actually, you want to build the networks of highly capable people you can call on when you need them.

That’s how good business happens. It happens because you know other people who are highly capable and highly able to do this. So from a business perspective, this is very different. And you can look at this down to a family business. Family businesses, which is the heart of small enterprise in many contexts, many countries. If you use a family business, then your family are people you can trust. And so that element of trust, they’re people you can rely on in, in ways you maybe couldn’t rely on other people to have your interests at heart as well, because it’s all in the family, so to speak. And so family businesses would be a very good example of where nepotism is desirable. In fact, it’s what makes a family business so powerful.

[00:09:55] Santiago: It’s necessary for a family business in some way.

[00:10:02] David: Well, if if you don’t have some element of favouring the family within the business, it’s not a family business. This is the thing. Family businesses are successful. And at a small level, they’re absolutely desirable, I believe, in many contexts, in many societies, because your family comes with networks of trust. And so therefore, it’s not that you’re getting a win lose, you’re getting a win win, because you can take for granted elements of trust, which will mean the business will be doing better because of those, relationships of trust which go beyond the business itself.

[00:10:42] Santiago: And maybe we can get into some of my concerns within IDEMS?

[00:10:50] David: Well, before we get there, let’s get to this other key example, which I think is so important, and which is central to me in my thinking, which comes from academia. I want to talk through a very specific case, where I had a colleague who had a good job at one university, and his wife had a good job at another university in another town, and their life was quite complicated because of the commute, and they couldn’t live somewhere where it was convenient for both of their jobs at their universities.

And neither of them really wanted to leave the universities they were at, and they got offered jobs together at another university in a third place, that was able to attract them away.

[00:11:32] Santiago: Hang on, you told me this story before, and they weren’t offered jobs together. Let’s tell the story in detail because it is quite important and highlights this idea…

[00:11:44] David: One of them had applied to a job at this institution and had been offered it and was going to turn it down, but as part of their policies they had this element of spouse jobs as well and so they considered the spouse for the job, and they offered them a job as well.

And the fact that both of them were offered a job is what led to them both accepting and both moving. And that’s, I think, really important. So it was a policy within the university to be able to enable couples of academics who were both qualified academics, where the respective departments are interested in them.

They were both relatively senior, they were both sort of professor sort of level. There was this policy which enabled spouses to be considered for jobs as a way to make it more attractive for academic families to join the institution. And I see this favour which was given as being essentially very positive because it’s been a way that they were able to attract talent and provide a high quality of life for the people who are working for them

[00:12:56] Santiago: And it’s, a win for the university because they got the person they wanted, another win for the university because they got another senior person in another department working and contributing to the academic life of the university, and a win for the couple, because they managed to simplify their lives, work in the same institution, in the same city, and remove the complications…

[00:13:20] David: From being in different places, absolutely. And the key point is, the spouse, had to go through an interview process to show that they would add value to the institution. But they were not competing to be the best. The original person had already won that competition, and it was part of offering them the job that then it was only about adding value. That was what the spouse needed to bring. They needed to add value to the institution.

And that’s where it became a win win win, everybody wins from it. The other department, they win, they haven’t had someone forced on them. They could have said, no, this is not someone who’s a good fit for our department. But they now have an opportunity to recruit someone they wouldn’t have been able to recruit in the same way otherwise. So it’s a whole different sort of way of recruiting, which I feel is very beneficial.

And so actually thinking about that, and it is looking about work life balance in interesting ways. It’s recognizing that employees come with family situations, which is really important. And so that’s something else, which I’ve, coming from an academic background, I am very conscious of places where this is not the case, because you have to have academic excellence and other places which have adopted this, which therefore actually brings them excellence in a different way.

I think that’s a really good example of a positive example where actually giving favour in certain ways is important because it leads to a better result for everyone.

[00:14:54] Santiago: Yeah, and the first person in the couple who was offered a job got a favour but they were the most qualified person.

[00:15:05] David: Exactly. And so they were the most qualified person, they came in having gone through the process that they went through, whatever it was, but then as part of that there was this process to then enable spouses to get involved. But not to get involved because it was just a benefit to the spouse. To get involved, once they went through a process, to ensure it was of benefit to the institution. And that’s the key.

[00:15:34] Santiago: Yeah, and there were the three wins, and the three wins were considered carefully.

[00:15:40] David: Exactly. You’ve successfully recruited the person you wanted to recruit, the spouse adds value where they are joining, and the couple benefit because they now all have jobs in the same place, and they can live and work in the same place.

[00:15:56] Santiago: Okay. I think unless you have any other examples, I want to bring things down to IDEMS because we’re running out of time.

[00:16:02] David: Ok.

[00:16:03] Santiago: Let me go back to where I started. The response that Lucie had to your discussion with Danny, I listened to it, was worried about certain things that were said. Francis lost his funding for his PhD for external circumstances. Francis was an old, dare I say friend?

[00:16:27] David: Well, I was his former supervisor, so I had been his master’s supervisor. He was a friend of Danny’s, the other director, and so because they actually met at the maths camp, both of us knew him, he was a friend, he was, in academic terms, you think of it almost as family relationships with supervisor students, so, he was a close, very close connection to both myself and Danny.

[00:16:53] Santiago: And going back to the definition, relatives, friends or associates. It was definitely, definitely within that category.

[00:17:00] David: An academic relative, a friend, and an associate [laughs].

[00:17:08] Santiago: Okay you dealt very well, I think, with the exploitative side of things. But one thing that was left in the back of my mind was you gave that opportunity to him. You funded the remaining of his PhD because you knew him, because you knew who he was, you gave him an opportunity that others could have benefited from.

[00:17:34] David: We couldn’t have given the opportunity to others. And this is, I think, this is part of coming back to the family business element. We could not have created that opportunity for someone else. We couldn’t have afforded to. We couldn’t have taken that risk. With Francis we knew because of our personal connections with him, we knew that the fact that his funding fell through was not his fault, and therefore it was unlikely that he would not complete because the funding fell through.

It was likely that he would be able to proceed. He’d be able to complete his studies despite the funding falling through. And we knew also that he was capable, and we knew that we could play that role to support him through that process. If we’d opened it up to anyone whose funding had fallen through, we couldn’t have known all that.

[00:18:34] Santiago: He had also been contributing to IDEMS projects.

[00:18:40] David: Well, we do work for Reading University on PICSA and his PhD was related to PICSA. So we had contracts which related to his work. And so there was going to be a natural way for him to grow into the work that we do and therefore to contribute and give back.

Again, this is the associate part, it’s not just that he was the sort of academic relative that therefore I could know he could go through and complete. It wasn’t just that he was a friend. He was also an associate where we knew that that work related to what he was doing, to the expertise he was gaining through his PhD, was work where we get work aligned with that. And so it was likely that he would be able to contribute, which is exactly what’s happened.

[00:19:29] Santiago: Yes. So, Francis’ case is what prompted this episode, but we had discussions about nepotism within IDEMS…

[00:19:39] David: Oh, yes.

[00:19:41] Santiago: …before, well before that discussion with you and Lucie about Francis. And I mean, it hits me personally…

[00:19:52] David: It hits me personally.

[00:19:53] Santiago: …in two ways. It hits you personally as well, and hits the organization personally because a lot of the people recruited were previously associates of some sort.

So in my case, I was a friend first, and opportunistically you offered me some freelance work. And that freelance work led to a full time position.

[00:20:24] David: The first full time position for IDEMS.

[00:20:27] Santiago: Which we mentioned in multiple episodes already.

[00:20:31] David: And I think this is important. We were very conscious of that jump as an organisation, from just directors to having an employee. And taking on someone who we had a long relationship with, this is thinking of it almost as a family business in that way, which is not how we see IDEMS in the long term. But going from zero to one is a big jump. And actually bringing on someone where we have that trust relationship. Where we have the working relationship. We’ve done work before in a number of different ways. Where we’ve had the subcontractor relationship. You weren’t the only subcontractor that we knew from our extended circles.

But you were the one where that transition from subcontractor to employee, it made sense. And there was work which we could bring you in to do, and so it led to this win win situation. You happened to be in a personal situation, where, you moving from doing some subcontract work for us, to actually taking a full time role, would help you with what you were wanting to do in your life at that point in time. And at the same time, we were at the point where we were getting additional work, and we needed additional people. We needed to start employing. And so there was a good win win, which happened then.

[00:21:50] Santiago: Even before that, the freelance work that you gave me, there’s a very important aspect of opportunism. I had the skills that you knew you needed, and you knew that I had the skills that you needed at that point in time, and you had to deliver quickly.

[00:22:07] David: Actually, what’s interesting is that’s not quite true. So for you, we didn’t have the pressure of having to deliver quickly. If you remember, you started on the STACK work, which was unpaid for us. This was part of our investment work. Part of the reason we took you on as a subcontractor is we knew you had the skills which could lead to the impact we were looking to do.

And we were looking to build up that part of our work. We wanted to spend our time to bring in the funds that would enable us to do this. And we knew that actually with you subcontracting you in this way, we weren’t taking on a big commitment at that point in time, not in the same way as when we employed you, but we also knew that you had the skills to deliver the quality that we wanted for that impact work which we felt so passionate about and which was so important for the organization as a whole.

[00:23:04] Santiago: Yes, and then you hired my wife.

[00:23:07] David: Aha. This was a very interesting discussion because maybe before we talk about that, we should also talk about the elements of nepotism related to me because my father’s involved in IDEMS, both my sisters, my wife has sort of had a role at the beginning and she may well have a role in the future, my sister-in-law has a role. And in many ways all of these roles are interesting because the same happened with your wife. It was about win wins in each of these cases. With my father, who’s maybe been the biggest collaborator, he had set up, he was the director of another social enterprise, but they weren’t really supporting the work that he was doing and they hadn’t been able to recruit people to help him do that. And we were! And so, although he’s not had an official role, he actually ended up sort of standing down as a director there to focus on the work with us because we built a team of people around the work that he cared about. A lot of his work was volunteering work, but the paid work that he had he no longer has through the other organization which he had to set up and found, Statistics for Sustainable Development.

He now does that paid work directly through IDEMS and we pay him for that work. And so it’s been something where, without a doubt, there has been this element of win win. He’s spent a career building up an element of work, and he didn’t have anyone else to hand it over on, and we’ve built up a team of people who have taken that work forward.

[00:24:51] Santiago: And let me just clarify that it wasn’t him stealing work from Stats4SD, we are close collaborators with them.

[00:24:59] David: We’re close collaborators with them, we continue to collaborate with them. They had all the opportunities, and he kept pushing to try to get people and interest people within Stats4SD to take up the work that he was doing there, and they just never had the right people.

Whereas IDEMS recruited them, there was no element of stealing here, it was sort of mutually agreed that their interests were different. The people that they’d recruited were different, and they didn’t want to take on that work in the same way that we did. And that work that we’ve taken on, part of this, and this comes back to Francis, it’s just the same PICSA work that Francis is involved in.

It’s the investment in people like Francis, which Stats4SD wouldn’t have done. They were too conservative for that. And so it’s part of those risks that we’ve taken related to this, and the fact that we’re willing to take that on, that’s been part of what’s enabled this in different ways.

And so my father has and is an important part of IDEMS, but very much in his niche area, in the areas of work which he as an academic has been pursuing for almost 50 years, which are tied in with the work that we do.

[00:26:06] Santiago: Now let me interrupt you, with time in mind, let’s move on to your sister and the accounting.

[00:26:14] David: Okay.

[00:26:14] Santiago: An interesting example.

[00:26:16] David: That’s a really interesting example and it relates to your wife. Basically, my sister, she had some experience doing bits of accounting and had a job where she was well within her capabilities and so she had some free time. And we needed someone to help support the accounting process.

And we couldn’t employ someone full time, we didn’t have that ability. And I sort of sat down with her at one point and said, could you help us out? And she came on board for a few months and helped us out for a few months, taking on some of the accounting responsibility, which she was able to do quickly, and I was able to very quickly trust her with the accounts in a way that I couldn’t have done with somebody else without actually going through a proper recruitment process and all the other things.

And we didn’t have the funds to employ someone to do this full time. And so, very quickly she was able to get up to speed and contribute in a small way. Now, unfortunately for us, and fortunately for her, she then took on a different role in the school, a teaching role, which meant that she didn’t have time for us and so she’s no longer contributing in the same way.

But that was very similar to what happened with your wife, in the sense that she was in a position where she had the capabilities, she had the time to contribute. We set up a very simple zero hour contract, we couldn’t offer her large amounts, we didn’t have a job we could have advertised, but we did have little bits of work that needed doing on a whole range of different things which she could just help with.

And the agreement was simply that if she could make herself useful then we could pay for the hours that she was able to do on this zero hour basis, and it sort of has grown from there. And she’s been able to find a way to be useful and add value. It’s again, it’s about creating that win win.

So we’ve not been able to offer her a fancy role or a really nice job in that sort of sense. But what we have been able to do is to create a win win, where we’ve been able to give her the opportunity to do bits of work with our team, which is a fantastic team to be working with in lots of different ways, which has worked out well for her. And at the same time, she has been able to fill in and help and save time from staff members who need that support, without us taking on a big commitment.

[00:28:41] Santiago: Next example. We have had quite a lot of Postdoctoral Impact Activation Fellowships and most of them, if I’m not mistaken, were not advertised positions.

[00:28:54] David: We have not yet… well, we have only advertised the Impact Activation Fellow, which was joint with Edinburgh University. That is the only open advert that we’ve had for the Impact Activation Fellowships.

And so everything else has been done through our extending networks. Some people we’ve known for a long time and then they’ve gone through and they’ve come to the end of their PhD and we’ve tempted them in. Other people we didn’t know before in any way, but they’ve been part of the extended network that we’ve got and they’ve heard about the work that we’re doing and we’ve had referrals in that sort of way, which says, this person might be a good fit and we’ve gone through a process to recruit.

[00:29:39] Santiago: And we’ve had about eight now, such positions?

[00:29:45] David: That sort of order of magnitude, it depends exactly how you count them and who you count, but yes, it’s that sort of thing.

[00:29:52] Santiago: It’s that element of trust as well and that in several of those cases, the individuals in question had done voluntary work with either ourselves or our partner organizations.

[00:30:08] David: Exactly. So let’s be absolutely clear. It’s not just that they had done voluntary work, it’s that the voluntary work that they have done was really around the impact that we want to be doing. And so we knew that there was an alignment of mission, in particular. That what we care about is the same as what they care about and that they have experiences related to that particularly, and this has been central, is the education in low resource environments, particularly in Africa. Most people we’ve taken on in that way, I mean even yourself, the way we got to know each other was by having volunteering events together in Africa. That’s what we have in common. Trying to do maths education in Africa or something like that has been the major route.

It’s not the only route. There was an interesting case, of course, where somebody applied for a totally different job, and they weren’t suited or competitive for that job, but they would be perfect for an impact activation postdoctoral fellowship, and we created a position for that. And so it’s been opportunistic in a whole range of different ways.

But very often it is about finding that win win. That it’s not just a win for them, it’s a win for the organisation. And that’s the key. And this comes back to the element that if they’re fundamentally profitable to the organisation in the long run, then it doesn’t matter; if you have nepotism and the person you bring in is negative on the organisation in the long run, then it’s really detrimental.

If you have a sort of form of nepotism which brings people in who add value to the organisation, then actually, that’s not taking away from the other opportunities you can create. That’s potentially creating more. And so, you do need to be careful to be able to create opportunities outside of your circles. That’s really important. But, bringing in elements of a family business, elements of creating work environments we’ve got is so important and so much part of the culture that we want to build. I want to build a working system, an organisation, where everybody is expected to, in their own right, add value to the organisation.

[00:32:34] Santiago: Okay, we are going to have to do a part two of this and in that part two I would like to hone in on three things, I think. One is a question that keeps coming to my mind is, you know, we are talking about win win, but that win win might be a loss for someone else who might have been able to add value in similar ways.

And the other two things is lower down. What happens with internships? What happens with work experience? What happens with family connections and wealth? And access. And that is something that we’re hoping to expand on as an organization.

[00:33:18] David: Absolutely. And this is something which is critical because you mentioned volunteering as a way in.

[00:33:24] Santiago: David, I’m really looking forward to part two, we’ll delve into this…

[00:33:27] David: So am I. It’s, it’s a really tough issue. Thank you for bringing this up. I don’t have answers to this. What I do know, and what I want to finish this episode on before we dig into the next one, is that as a small business and as a big business, it’ll be different. As a small business, it’s different. As an international organisation, it would be different. As a government, it would be different.

What I do know, parameters are complex. There’s, there’s no, there’s no right or wrong which is absolute in this. There are contexts within which we will need to be careful and we may get wrong sometimes, but what we can and we should always be doing is having these discussions to make sure that we’re making good decisions in our current situation.

[00:34:20] Santiago: Well, looking forward to part two, take care.

[00:34:23] David: I’m looking forward to part two as well, thank you.