019 – Is Nepotism always harmful? Part 2

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
019 – Is Nepotism always harmful? Part 2


In this second part of the discussion of nepotism, Santiago questions David further on whether the win-win scenarios presented in the first part do not mean a loss for someone else and consider this in a local and global context. They delve deeper into other types of opportunities, how they arise, and consider how organisations need to balance the creation of opportunities with the seizing of opportunities.

[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, the founding director of IDEMS. Hi, David.

[00:00:17] David: Hi, Santiago. I’m afraid I’m outside, and so you may be getting some background noise from me. Slight power problems in the house today.

[00:00:25] Santiago: That’s all right. I hope the Italian winter is not too cold.

[00:00:29] David: No, it’s actually quite nice outside at the moment.

[00:00:33] Santiago: Now we left our last episode on nepotism and decided we’d do a part two because we ran out of time. There were still questions to be considered. One of them is; we talked about win-win scenarios with nepotism where the organisation wins because the person favoured adds value. The person favoured wins because they get a position that they want or an opportunity through their connections and they get to do a job that they want to do. There are other cases of win-win that we considered in the episode.

But what we didn’t fully consider is every time you make a decision to hire someone or favour someone, there’s a whole plethora of people who could also add value that you’re not considering necessarily that you’re potentially leaving behind.

[00:01:31] David: And I think the example which I like so much for this is the example of the academic, considering the spouse for the role enables you to attract families of academics as an institution. But it does mean that you now have a department that didn’t go through an open process to recruit. Now, there are efficiencies there, which again, you’ve recruited someone without having to go through the long process. Sometimes in these institutions, it takes multiple years to recruit someone. And so, as a department, you’ve gained from this, potentially, you’ve got a good member of staff maybe who you were not due to have otherwise.

But, there’s a real question of, who would you have recruited if you had gone through an open process? And I think one of the things to bear in mind in this context is the bounded nature of the nepotism in this way. That what you’re doing is you’re creating maybe at most 50 percent of the positions that could be recruited in this way, as a way to attract the other 50 percent. So there’s a natural bound, now you’re never going to get 50 percent recruited in this way, it’s just not how academia works. You do have a natural bound, this isn’t something where suddenly it’s going to affect the whole institution.

It’s not going to suddenly be something where you’re not doing open recruitment processes. For every person you recruit in this way as a spouse, you’ve done an open recruitment process. So there’s a natural bound to how that would work, which makes this something which I feel is a pragmatic and very positive solution.

Where you get into trouble with nepotism in this, is if all the jobs happen to go to family members. Now suddenly there’s no open positions which anyone could take. So in this context, I feel there’s a, there’s a real balance which is naturally coming in, where there’s a bound to the roles which are recruited in this way. There could be an element as an institution of really looking after your staff, which is so positive in terms of the culture, that it actually leads to more loyalty, that maybe you can attract people, as I know happens, who you would not have been able to attract to the institution otherwise, because of policies like this.

I’m not saying that all institutions should adopt such a policy, but I’m saying that it is a really nice example of a way of having a policy which I think brings the positive elements of nepotism to the forefront, which is building on the family connections in a way that enables people to get a better quality of life at work as part of an institution’s responsibility towards its staff.

[00:04:51] Santiago: Even at the completely hypothetical detriment of other people who could have added value if given…

[00:05:00] David: Well, but I don’t think it is at the detriment of other people who could have added value, because the whole point is, if you hadn’t offered that position, you’d now have an open position which you weren’t able to fill with your top candidate. And so there’s already that open competition, so you’re not getting the most value for that position because you weren’t able to maybe attract that person. So it’s not at the detriment to anyone in particular on this. I think that’s not a correct way to see this.

There is an element of maybe there is a job that could have existed, which is not openly advertised, but that’s not to any individual’s detriment. Yes, there aren’t enough jobs at these institutions for everyone, but that’s because these are elite academic institutions. The fact that there could be other people who would add value in this academic context, that’s the nature of academia.

What I’d like to maybe draw out and think about this from an IDEMS perspective… If you think about this from a company’s perspective, as IDEMS, if you had such a win-win and the spouse was fundamentally profitable, over time those profits would enable you to recruit other people.

And so, again, this is not to the detriment of other people, it is creating other opportunities over time. Now, maybe at that point in time, there is somebody who you could have created a position for who you couldn’t in this way. But if everybody is serving the organization to make it more profitable. Again, this depends on the company. If the company is purely for profit, then maybe that is now being extracted out into individuals. However, if this is a not for profit company where you feed that back in to the growth of the organization and creating more opportunities, then this does nothing but create opportunities for others.

[00:07:06] Santiago: Getting in detail in this example, when you gave the job to your sister to look after the accounts, you freed up time for productivity for members of the team who were delivering contracts to be more productive. And as a result, potentially we would have been able to recruit someone else through an open process.

[00:07:32] David: In the future, yes, this is the idea and the aim. The value that people bring in, – that’s a really good example – the value that people bring in should enable the organisation to do more, to do better, and hence to be able to create more opportunities or better opportunities.

That’s the theory behind it. In practice, of course, it’s all very complicated, and it isn’t as simple as that.

[00:08:02] Santiago: Yes.

[00:08:02] David: I guess this comes to your final point of, well, if it’s a win-win for my sister and the company, what about the less privileged or the people who would have benefited from that role or that job who don’t have those personal connections? And the simple truth there is that as a small organization, we can’t take responsibility for everyone. However, we can be thoughtful about what we’re doing. And one of the things which is very interesting and very difficult about this, in my mind, I’ve spent time living in Niger, in Kenya, in countries where the lack of opportunity is so much more than we would find in the UK.

I absolutely understand in the UK the importance of creating these opportunities in diverse contexts, but I don’t believe we as an organization should limit ourselves to that. IDEMS International is international by nature. So we also need to consider creating opportunities anywhere in the world in different contexts.

And one of the things which I think is so important in the way that we need to think about this is, as we grow, what opportunities are we looking to create and what inequalities are we looking to resolve in a given country versus more globally. And that balance between thinking about global inequalities versus local inequalities is one where I have no answers to what the right balance should be.

But what I do know is if we’re going to succeed, we need to be thinking about both. It is not enough to just worry about global inequalities. And to be working with those in most need in extreme environments. We have to also be thinking about local inequalities and how we are able to help and contribute and reduce them in whichever context we work.

[00:10:33] Santiago: I would like to bring things back to the key question of the win-win versus win-win-lose because we’re digressing slightly.

[00:10:43] David: No, we’re not digressing, because the key point is, if you think about a lose, are you thinking about a local loose, or are you thinking about a global loose? And if you’re thinking about the global lose, what about the people who didn’t get an education in the first place, so who had no chance to be able to get towards this? Who are you actually thinking of that loose from is part of what’s so important. So this isn’t a digression, this is central to this idea about if you want to think about somebody hypothetical losing, who is that hypothetical person? Is it local or is it global? And I’m not saying you should think about one or the other. I am saying that if you think about someone, it is either local or global.

And I think this is critical, this concept of thinking about a hypothetical loss, if you were to put a face to that person, you have to have chosen either local or global to put a face. Yeah, this is the person who could have lost, but it’s not the only person. Either that’s a local face or it’s a global face. The differences and the difficulties across those is so complex that conceptually taking that on…

What we can do as a small organisation is try to make sure that we are creating opportunities for people who would otherwise not have opportunities. And I suppose this comes back to the discussion on internships and workplaces.

[00:12:25] Santiago: Yeah, that was my next point. We have internships with, with our partner organisations. And we had two internships as well in IDEMS International already, we applied for a grant to expand those type of internships. Unfortunately we didn’t get it. And we had an instance of a very opportunistic work experience opportunity for a school student who came to it through a connection. So what happens in those scenarios?

[00:13:01] David: Well, you’ve articulated this, whether it was deliberate or not, I really commend you on how you articulated this, because we had an opportunistic work placement, which happened to have a personal connection and which for all sorts of different reasons would not have been possible if it wasn’t just opportunistically there. I mean, the fact that they were placed with you, you know, and you are experience working with schools and with school children meant that things would be taken care of sensibly in a way that generally as an organisation we’re not set up to do unless it goes through people like yourself who have that experience. And we only have a small number of people with experience with school children in that way. So that needed to be opportunistic unless it was built into a bigger scheme.

When we went through and we got the internships, we did it through a bigger scheme. That was a specific scheme which was exactly trying to get minorities access to data internships, to reduce these inequalities. And so we were able to offer opportunities to two people from disadvantaged backgrounds or minority backgrounds. So, that was something where, again, it was working with partners. Collaboration is an important part of what we do. So, we couldn’t create a whole program without having those collaborations as part of it. And this is what we would like to build.

And I guess this is the local part of when I was talking about local and global. We offer a lot of internships through our partners in Kenya, in Ghana, in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali. There’s all sorts of places where, either due to partners we have or collaborations we have, we have the opportunity to create these opportunities in the global context in very low resource environments.

When we’re also looking at the local in the UK, again, we need partners to help us to identify who are the groups in need often. And we can work as part of that partnership, creating these opportunities. So our role isn’t to do everything to our people. We can’t. We’re too small. Even if we were bigger, we still couldn’t.

But what we can do is we can work with partners who are trying to create some of these opportunities, as well as being opportunistic where we can and where it is a win-win. So, I think it comes back to, as an organisation, if we were always being opportunistic and just creating these win-wins, I would get worried that we’re actually creating inequality rather than reducing it.

[00:15:58] Santiago: Yeah, so what I’m hearing, and what’s in the back of my mind at the moment, is balance is about finding that balance of when it’s appropriate to have an open recruitment with the cost involved and the time involved for all parties and when it’s best to be opportunistic and build on our networks and connections.

[00:16:23] David: And I would argue that the golden rule on this for me, you know, I don’t have any great wisdom, is reflection. We’ve got to always take time to reflect back on, okay, is what we’re doing working well? Are there ways in which we should be formalising into something bigger where we could go through open recruitment or, as might be interesting, a targeted recruitment.

One of the things that I really like about the internship program we had last year, this was not an open recruitment, it was a targeted recruitment for minorities. And that was one of the things that attracted us to that – I don’t know whether it was an opportunity for us or we provided the opportunity – but one of the things that attracted us to it was the fact that this was designed to increase access to those who were traditionally excluded. And that was attractive, and we got two good interns from it, and I hope we provided them with good, interesting internships.

[00:17:29] Santiago: And one of them is still with us as a volunteer, if I’m not mistaken.

[00:17:33] David: One of them actually then went on and became a volunteer as part of their coursework. And so they continue to interact with us and to work with us as a volunteer as part of their coursework. Both relationships have been very interesting. The other I think we still have good contact with, they’ve gone back into their undergraduate programme but maybe next summer they might consider another stint with us. So we’ll see.

[00:18:01] Santiago: We’ll see, but you mentioned as well one thing, targeted recruitment, but it was targeted but open at the same time. It had a specific demographic in mind, but within that demographic it was an open recruitment.

[00:18:16] David: Yes, that’s right.

[00:18:18] Santiago: And I think that’s important to highlight.

[00:18:20] David: It wasn’t our recruitment in a sense. From our perspective, we were very fortunate that we were given a list of candidates and then we went through, we interviewed the top candidates and we recruited two of them.

[00:18:33] Santiago: So let me take this on a somewhat different direction, so we’ve been looking inwards quite a bit in the last few parts of this episode. And I would like to end this in a more perhaps anthropological or societal side of things. Wealth, connections, access. I’m from Argentina, the phrase, it’s not who you are, it’s who you know, is much more relevant than in the UK, and it is quite difficult to get good jobs without connections. Is building on these connections favouring these connections, or even requiring such a link, increasing the divide between those who have wealth and access and those who don’t?

[00:19:39] David: This is a really interesting and difficult question. Because the context you’re describing is exactly the one in which these connections of wealth and privilege do lead to inequalities at a societal level, which is, is really problematic. And this is a problem in the UK in certain circles as well.

[00:20:05] Santiago: It’s clearly the case in the UK. I worked in two very wealthy independent schools and the opportunities that the kids have in there are far, far greater than the opportunities that the kids in state schools that I worked at.

[00:20:23] David: But that’s different to what we’re discussing now, which is nepotism and the… if you want, the opening doors to opportunities through the individual. There’s opening doors to opportunities through wealth, which is a whole other podcast, I think. And there’s opening doors to opportunities through connection. And of course that does relate to wealth as well. And we brought that up as one of these key issues. And I, of course, don’t have any big answers to this, and what I do have is two things that I’d like to add to this debate from, again, a very limited perspective. If we’re looking at this in terms of connections always being a bad thing, then we lose some of the richness that the world has to offer.

I benefited in some ways from elements which could be considered these benefits of connection because I had a very unusual upbringing where I had spent time travelling around Africa. I got opportunities to have internships which meant I could bring my skills to contexts which I would never have been able to do if it wasn’t for the unusual upbringing that I had, I would never have had those skills to be able to take up that opportunity. There was a sort of set of skills that I developed as an individual. So, totally ignoring the skills individuals create or obtain by their experiences from their connections and so on, and not having, not seizing the opportunities that can emerge from these, how can I put it, connections, is not necessarily a win for society.

There was nobody else who could have taken the role that I played. I didn’t take that role from anyone. I am not disputing the fact that I benefited from having those opportunities. They were often, because I was quite privileged, and I didn’t need to focus on the finances. They were often very badly paid or volunteer roles, and that was part of the privileged background that I had to be able to take a volunteering or a low paid position, where maybe only my expenses were covered. But I could only have done and delivered on those opportunities because of the experience I had through my family connections and through my family experience. So I’m very sensitive to the fact that not everybody is able to seize certain opportunities.

However, we have to counter that by creating opportunities for people who don’t have those experiences to gain them. How we can do that in fair and equitable ways is a real challenge. But I think that’s something where we need to put time and effort to do.

[00:23:53] Santiago: Do you think that’s part of every organisation’s social responsibility?

[00:23:57] David: No, I don’t necessarily, and I think what every organisation should have as part of their responsibility is to balance these things where they are seeking to maybe be opportunistic and take advantage of the opportunities they have, but also to create opportunities, and to create opportunities for those who don’t come with those experiences.

I do think that balance between these is, particularly for large organisations, an important part of their responsibility. I don’t believe that large organisations should be totally removed from being able to be opportunistic, but I think it is so important that as organisations, we do try to balance these and we do try to create opportunities as well as seizing them. And I think that’s the right way to frame it. When we’re looking at sort of elements of this nepotism, especially if we’re looking at it as being a win-win, we need to balance the creation of opportunities with the seizing of opportunities. And good organisations should do both.

[00:25:20] Santiago: Great. I think that is a lovely point to end at.

[00:25:26] David: Thank you for this set of discussions on this, because I never articulated that in this way before, but I do quite like this way of thinking about it. The world is a complex place. There is no one right way of doing it. It’s all about balance. And, I like this expression, I’m going to reuse it in other contexts. Balancing between creating and seizing opportunities.

[00:25:49] Santiago: Well it’s been very interesting, thank you for giving me so much time to discuss this idea of nepotism, which, as I said, in the previous episode I always saw as a negative, and this opened my eyes considerably.

[00:26:04] David: Well, thank you. I don’t claim to be getting all of this right, but it is things that I’ve thought about quite deeply over the years, and it’s really complex stuff.