During my childhood, which took place in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, I often heard of sons replacing their fathers in their professional roles at work; of friends being hired to complete an engineering team; of daughters-in-law getting trained to do the accounting within the company.
Having worked all over the world, I can attest that hiring qualified friends and family members is the way to go in most cultures. In Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Australia, recommending a friend or family member for a position implicitly means the person has already been vetted to demonstrate the same type of values as the person who is recommending him. A family member has similar interests regarding success as the person recommending her, as in most cultures, people care more about the well-being of the group (the family) than the individual (the self). And because friends and family members are under the scrutiny of the group at all times, hiring within one’s network guarantees the person will perform and do his best to make the group successful.
I was never made aware, until I came to the United States, that hiring friends and family had a name: a bad name, moreover. Here, and especially within large companies, that bad name is “nepotism.” A friend of mine used the term apologetically a few years ago when explaining to me that the fact that we were friends would not make me a good candidate for a consulting mandate her company posted. Her company has a strong “nepotism policy” in place; and even though I was the most qualified professional for the job, our relationship — which she felt had to be disclosed — would disqualify me. Friendship had for the first time become my competitor instead of my ally.
In North America, where the culture is strongly centered around the individual (with the exception of Québec) there is an aversion to nepotism, to the point where strong policies have been put in place at many corporations. That uniquely negative view towards friends and family in professional settings made me curious. I decided to learn more about the reasons behind this cautious stance.
The fact that Québec is the exception in North America was my first clue. It had to do with religion. English-speaking Canada is Protestant; Québec is Catholic. Sub-groups of Protestantism form the religious majority in the United States. Nepotism must have its roots in the Catholic Church and, as my research confirmed, in the Vatican and the Popes.
The etymology of the word “nepotism” pointed me in the direction of the “nephew” in Italian: il nipote. My research into papal matters and the role the nephews of the Popes played in the equation led me to a delightful book called Mistress of the Vatican by Eleanor Herman. According to Herman, Popes worked their way up through the clergy often coming from very humble backgrounds (Adrian VI’s father was a carpenter, while Pius V tended sheep before joining the clergy).
Because Rome in the Middle Age was such a dangerous place to live, the newly elected Pope would appoint his nephew (suo nipote) as his right arm and protector. Also, because most elected Popes were old, the Prince of the Church had only a few years to elevate his entire family to a level of recognized nobility. While sharing wealth was considered a Christian gesture, the way Popes did it — pillaging the Vatican’s coffers and increasing taxes on the poor to support their family’s ascension — was strongly condemned by the people.
It is no surprise that Martin Luther could convince his followers that the Body of Tradition (the different doctrines the Vatican created to justify its presence and power) was wrong. That is also where the concept of nepotism could be traced as officially getting a bad rep because it was associated with the abuse of power of the Catholic Church Luther trumpeted right and left.
North America, a continent inhabited early on by a vast number of people who had been religiously persecuted by the Catholic Church, saw these immigrants bring with them some resentment and strong dislike toward anything the Vatican did. Nepotism is one of them; and it is the reason, in my estimation, that the stigma around hiring friends and family still resonates so deeply within certain U.S. organizations.
This being said, I’ve heard that “hip” companies like Zappos and Google encourage their employees to date one another and seem to favor hiring within a tight network of people who get along with one another — people who respect each other as much outside of work as at work.
Globalization and the fact that talents may be sourced the world over, to not mention high youth unemployment, seems to have made U.S. nationals more aware of the need for inner professional support for friends and family.
All of this makes me wonder if the uncertain economical times we experience at home might be telling signs that there might be a place for il nipote in our culture after all.