Nepotism at Work

By Andrew Willis
09 Oct 2020

Unfair hiring practices can destroy employee morale and productivity. This is just one consequence of nepotism on your business.

In this article, we’ll look at exactly what constitutes nepotism and how to manage it.

What is nepotism at work in the UK?

Nepotism refers to when an employer favours family members or friends. It usually occurs when hiring or making promotions.

There can be confusion among staff between nepotism and favouritism. Both are problematic in their own way, and there is some overlap.

Nepotism normally happens more in smaller firms and work environments, especially family businesses. This is because it saves money to bring in someone you know than the hiring process.

Nepotism is harmful when they hire a family member or friend who isn’t the best person for the role. This can have a damaging effect on your workforce and on the business reputation, as corruption and nepotism are associated with each other.

Is nepotism illegal in the UK?

This is a common question, but not so easy to answer. Technically, no—not under existing UK employment law.

Employment tribunals cannot take legal action against nepotism. However, there is the potential for discrimination to occur.

This means when asking: “is nepotism illegal?” you should consider those who will be affected by hiring (or promoting) friends or family

Nepotism and discrimination

When an employee has accusations of nepotism, the way they will be able to take legal action is through a discrimination claim.

This is because there will be unfair or different treatment between one person and another. However, for it to be discrimination there has to be a protected characteristic involved.

So hypothetically, there is a new senior executive position available in your organisation. You have three candidates. Two are senior managers within the business, and one is a friend who has never worked for you before.

Going with the friend, an external hire, will tell the internal candidates and team members that their experience, hard work, and competency are irrelevant. It also sets a precedent for preferential treatment.

In this situation, it can become discrimination if one of the internal hires has a protected characteristic. Here, hiring the friend not only has the same effect as before, but it also opens you up to discrimination claims.

Dealing with nepotism in the workplace in the UK

Having a strong anti-nepotism stance is a good business practice. You can start by drafting a policy and including it in your employee handbook.

This should outline your stance and any measures you will take to prevent nepotism occurring.

You should also remain vigilant. Train managers so they are able to make hiring decisions based on objective factors.

If those responsible for recruitment have any ties to a candidate, you can ask them to step aside for the process. This helps stomp out personal bias.

You can help prevent nepotism in the workplace using UK employment law and HR processes. For example, encourage your staff to report signs of nepotism using your internal grievance policy. If they raise a complaint, make sure you investigate it fully.

Is nepotism the same as favouritism at work in the UK?

The two concepts are not exactly the same. Despite this, favouritism at work and nepotism at work are terms that are often used interchangeably.

Favouritism is a broader term. An employer can have a favourite employee due to perfectly fair reasons—they’re hard-working, competent, loyal, reliable, etc. That doesn’t mean favouritism is always right.

Employers can also have favourite employees because they are subservient or have similar interests. And yes, family favouritism can occur if the business employs family members. That’s when the two terms overlap.

Nepotism is usually used to refer to the employer’s relationships with friends and family members, not employees with no relationship to the employer outside of work.

What is favouritism in the workplace?

Favouritism usually occurs in one of two ways. The first is an unfair treatment based on personality, gender, interest, etc. Depending on the extent of the preferential treatment, this can form the basis for discrimination claims.

The other category is favouring employees based on work performance. If rewarded correctly, this can encourage good working practices, such as having employee incentives. However, there can be damaging side effects to this if managed incorrectly.

It’s important to identify when an employee is working hard and when they’re overworking. If the employee is constantly working late, skipping lunches and doing extra work from home then this sets a precedent for everyone else.

This is made worse if you reward that behaviour. Your staff can damage their mental health and become burned out. In the extreme examples, you could fall foul of the working time regulations.

Is favouritism in the workplace illegal in the UK?

As with nepotism, favouritism in the workplace isn’t technically illegal. However, depending on the situation, it can lead to discrimination claims.

To ensure you don’t end up at an employment tribunal, you should review your hiring processes regularly to ensure nepotism doesn’t occur.

Playing favourites also will generally hurt workplace morale, making it have a more detrimental effect than you first intended.

Expert support

If you need further guidance on avoiding nepotism or any other HR issue, speak to a Croner expert today on  0145 585 8132

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.





Get expert views & insights delivered directly to your inbox