Nepotism or Networking, Is There a Difference?

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nepotism at work

Nepotism in the admissions process

Remember in high school, when your best friend got accepted to your first choice college because her parents went there, but you were denied? This preferential treatment, known as having "legacy," gives privilege to college applicants whose parents or siblings are alumni of that institution. The unfairness of this practice hasn't been overlooked -- a book recently published on the subject gained national media attention from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CBS, to name a few.

Yet despite legacy preferences having raised the eyebrows of skeptics, pretty much since the idea's inception, many colleges still use family-alumni status as a deciding factor when assessing applicants.

Nepotism among the rich and famous

Unfortunately, though, this type of family-and-friend favoritism doesn't stop in college. There is no officially sanctioned system for stopping nepotism in the workplace, like there is in the college admissions process, making it even harder to identify or stop.

Think about the fields of pop culture and politics, as examples. Nepotism -- which literally means "favoritism based on kinship," according to Merriam-Webster -- can be widely found in both.

Take Tori Spelling for example. Though she made a pretty convincing Donna in the series '90210,' it's no secret that her dad, Aaron Spelling, was the show's producer and a big influence over Tori's role on the show. As an example of nepotism in politics, we might consider the Kennedy family. During his time as President, John F. Kennedy appointed his brother as U.S. Attorney General. Robert Kennedy was obviously a highly talented individual and a skilled attorney, but obviously his family ties gave him a leg up on other talented candidates.

Benefits and drawbacks

At first glance, these advantages may not seem fair to the rest of us, who are expected to achieve success through merit alone. But when you think about it, isn't nepotism kind of the same thing as asking a friend to pass your résumé on to her HR department, or landing an internship through a neighbor?

Yes and no. According to the experts, while there is certainly some overlap between nepotism and networking -- both of which use connections to help connected individuals get ahead -- there is also a distinct difference between the two.

"There is indeed a difference between nepotism and networking," says Nancy Irwin, a doctor of clinical psychology who has worked with creative types in Hollywood. "With the former, you are given an opportunity [or] work. With the latter, you create it and build it yourself. [Networking] is healthier psychologically for all parties concerned, because it is built on worth, not a favor."

Lynne Sarikas, director of career services at Northeastern University's Graduate School of Business Administration, agrees with Irwin's conclusions. "Networking is not taking the easy way out; it is work, it takes time, and the process needs to be managed -- but it is the single most effective tool in the job search arsenal. While you will likely start your networking with family and friends, it should quickly expand to alumni connections, LinkedIn connections, former colleagues, etc. Nepotism is an attempt to shortcut the job search process and it often backfires," she says.

Why? Because with nepotism, a candidate's qualifications (beyond being a relative of a current employee) often aren't considered, which can lead to a company hiring an unfit candidate. "Someone getting a job that they are not qualified for simply because of who they know is nepotism in my book," Sarikas says.

Other issues

John Boyd, founder of online networking portal Meetingwave.com, also feels that nepotism without merit ultimately causes resentment and harm within a business. "When a son or daughter is anointed with an elevated position despite a lack of talent, it seeds resentment among other workers and [causes] other disruptions. There's a strong sense of unfairness and lack of a level playing field. If the person is unsuitable, the business is hurt," he says.

Though nepotism is often a poor hiring practice for a company or industry, Boyd does still feel there is a place for it in the working world, so long as the beneficiary is qualified for the job. "Often the offspring don't fall far from the tree. So a great actor often has kids that are talented, etc. Jeff Bridges is a great actor -- despite any benefit he might have received from being the son of Lloyd Bridges -- and his brother Beau is pretty good as well. I guess it's in their genes," he says.

While nepotism, at least without merit, seems unfair to those of us who don't have relatives in high places, Irwin believes that we may be better off in the long run without family favors, since it forces us to create our own networks. "Networking for oneself builds self-sufficiency and confidence. Those really can't grow when it's given to you by a family member," she concludes.

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