When you hear the word “discrimination,” thoughts of inequality among genders, races, religions and differing views of sexuality spring to mind. However, nepotism – a form of favoritism based on kinship – may enter the equation in the professional environment. In contrast to other forms of discrimination, nepotism comes in a deeper shade of gray, evading many legal and moral definitions.
In the professional environment, nepotism usually manifests when a person – who may otherwise be unqualified – receives a job, promotion, pay raise or other benefits on the basis of being related to the persons in charge. Outside of the workplace, nepotism occurs in educational and political sectors, giving preference to certain students seeking college admission or politicians entering the family business.
Is It Discrimination?
Due to a complex web of issues surrounding nepotism, there is no concrete answer to this question. In the article “Discrimination and Nepotism,” “The Journal of Legal Studies” defines discrimination as “differential treatment of people depending on their group affiliation.” By this definition, nepotism is indeed discrimination, the group receiving differential treatment being non-family members. On the flip side, discrimination by nature involves the disliking of certain groups, while nepotism involves the preference of certain people. For these reasons, nepotism's classification as discrimination is perhaps best approached on a case-by-case basis.
As of 2011, there are no standard national business laws that address nepotism. It is ultimately up to each state to determine nepotism laws. A common anti-nepotism measure is the anonymous application, but this is usually only used for state employment. As such, some businesses – especially family-owned companies – may openly embrace the concept. Other companies may outright ban nepotism, prohibiting family members from working with one another. Depending on the state, victims may legally combat nepotism when it is tied to racial, sexual or religious discrimination or wrongful termination. However, if consequences wrought by an act of nepotism are not illegal, the victim may have little legal ground to stand on.
Sometimes, nepotism and discrimination are closely tied in a subtle fashion, resulting in morally ambiguous situations. In a 2009 case against the City of New Haven, black firefighters argued that only white firefighters had been promoted via a test. Adding shades of nepotism to the case, all the black firefighters were first-generation firefighters while some white candidates came from firefighting families, giving them access to better study materials. Anti-nepotism sometimes occurs as well, putting qualified workers at a disadvantage due to company policy, such as when a seasoned employee is fired for marrying a coworker.