‘Putting in a good word’: the most acceptable form of corruption?

Have you ever ‘put in a good word’ at your workplace for a family member or friend? Or asked such a favour from your nearest and dearest? And how about ‘mates rates’? Ever been able to get something quicker or cheaper because of a powerful associate?

What harm does nepotism and cronyism do? The parents of 47 toddlers killed in a nursery in Mexico paid the highest price in 2009, when safety inspectors turned a blind eye to dodgy building work in a nursery because it was owned by the wives of two local officials. 10 days later, a fire spread from a neighbouring warehouse and quickly filled the area between the nursery’s high roof and the tarpaulin ceiling. But with fire alarms installed only below the tarpaulin, nothing alerted staff until it collapsed.

The story of the fire in the Mexican nursery shows us nepotism and its potentially devastating effects must be taken seriously

This is why Transparency International fights against what is perhaps the most common and widely accepted form of corruption:

A form of favouritism based on acquaintances and familiar relationships whereby someone in an official position exploits his or her power and authority to provide a job or favour to a family member or friend, even though he or she may not be qualified or deserving.

While the effects of ‘everyday nepotism’ are perhaps less visible than this tragic incident, they are no less damaging to society overall: poor quality public services and incompetent employees in both the public and private sector, to name a few.

This creates a domino effect which ultimately keeps the most disadvantaged in society disadvantaged. Take the hypothetical example of a local government official granting a construction contract to her brother’s company – which turns out to be inexperienced and understaffed – which results in poorly built roads being left unfinished – which makes accessing healthcare, food supplies and other resources near impossible for local people.

Nepotism: stifling social mobility and creating yet another hurdle for young people trying to break into the job market?

Nepotism also continues to be common practice in western European countries; in 2011 young people in Portugal demonstrated against corruption. Many of the protesters were well educated job seekers, unable to penetrate a job market where hiring by merit is not standard procedure. The UK is another case in point, where problems surrounding social inequalities are no secret. With a combination of the financial crisis causing unemployment rates across Europe to hit an all time high and the rise in university tuition fees in 2010, the future of young people in Britain has never been less certain.

In response to this, there is a fierce debate in the UK as to whether handouts from those in positions of power to family or friends are ensuring that young people from backgrounds where their relations cannot provide such assistance stay at the bottom of the ‘social ladder’.

The UK is no stranger to family favouritism within politics either, and other liberal democracies are even worse; take the nepotism engrained in the political dynasties of the US and Japan. History shows us these trends breed low voter turnouts and general public mistrust in government. This mistrust turned to anger and revolution during the Arab spring when the people overthrew elitist governments who favoured ‘their own’ such as Gadaffi’s Libyan Arab Republic.

While the effects of some acts of nepotism may be worse than others, each and every one of us must refrain from favouritism in order for the global fight against corruption to be won. If we ‘put in a good word’ for family or friends, we have no right to criticise those safety inspectors in Mexico because our actions are the same. While the direct consequences of their behaviour may be easier to see, morally speaking there is little difference.

Have you ever experienced nepotism? Or been its victim?

Can we stop it, or is it human nature to favour those you have personal relationships with?

Carousel image: Flickr / Creative commons: allensima

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Alice McCool

About Alice McCool

Alice McCool was Programme Officer for the Curaçao National Integrity System assessment project.

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10 Responses to ‘Putting in a good word’: the most acceptable form of corruption?

  1. Ashraf Masadeh 4 February 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    Nepotism is available over all Jordan. The reason in short is the traditional government selection criteria which should include a mix of all big tribes and famouse families as well as

  2. Ashraf Masadeh 4 February 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    … Also the government members should be from all the major regions in Jordan, this indirectly enrich the nepotism so the PM or any powerful member from the North so he will have most of his team from that area or his tribe. The frequency of having this over time turned to a tradition in some how so the rotation of the government top leaders will be reflected to the hiring of people from their regions. I heard some of the top officials make a statements hat they hired such number of their relatives in the government without any doubt.

    Changing this behavior should start from top down, so having penalties on people who involved in hiring unqualified people from their friend and relatives will surely decrease this bad practice. In addition, rules and regulations need to be enhanced to minimize the power of having one person authority.

  3. bashirahmed 4 February 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Scholarships are given to Friends and relatives of government officials, jobs are given to relatives and Friends of government officials, international trips and seminars organized by foreign countries are given to Friends and relatives of government officials.

    In addition to that overt corruption, my country has been plagued by civil/religious wars, famine and drought. In the last few months, the country is emerging from its difficult past. New government, new president, parliamentarians debating in the house, people are going to beaches, sports grounds and dance halls and the world is recognizing the new leadership. I think of the biggest threats to existence of Somalia as a functioning government is Corruption!

  4. Rod 5 February 2013 at 9:10 am #

    Excellent article and all very true. But (there is always a ‘but’), ‘putting in a good word’ is in human nature. Sometimes it is just down to vouching for a person. In that respect it is not dissimilar to a reference. However it can’t be put ahead of professional responsibility as per your Mexico example. If that happened in the UK they’d be sued back to the stone age and imprisoned.

  5. @taxigalicia 5 February 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    excellent article. define exactly what is happening to Spain right now. decades of corruption and party and now? politicians are not going to jail for stealing our money. to us the 20% penalty if you are late in making a payment. We have sunk to the depths!

  6. Michael 14 February 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Great article Alice, but it left me wondering where one should draw the line? For example, at a careers fair at my university last year I met someone from an organisation to which I have recently submitted an internship application. In my application I made sure to mention his name, as well as the subsequent lunch meeting we had had, in the hopes that this would increase my chances of being hired, or better yet that the recruiters would contact him to ask about me. I can see how this might be construed as being unfair to other applicants, but on the other hand I did make the effort to initiate contact after the career fair in order to further the relationship.

    My question to you is whether you agree that a prior relationship could actually make someone more productive in their role, e.g. due to the enhanced mutual trust from hiring someone you know or who has been recommended? My view is that this holds true, although admittedly it is very easy for this minor benefit to be swamped if the wrong person is hired through an improper recruitment process.

  7. Alice McCool
    Alice McCool 15 February 2013 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks so much for all your interesting comments. Rod’s point that vouching for someone is human nature and is in some ways not dissimilar to a reference is an interesting one, and I accept that to an extent people will always help their associates. The problem arises when nepotism is used as the sole or predominant reason for employment or the granting of a contract.

    So the question of how to draw the distinction is extremely difficult. Take your internship application, Michael. I don’t think there is anything wrong with professional networking; on the contrary, it can open up new opportunities for young people and is essential in many career paths. It also sounds as though in the case of your application you simply took initiative and used your university careers fair in a productive way.

    This is very different from an uncle offering his niece a position in his organisation for no reason other than the fact that she is his relative, and because he has the power to do so. This creates an unequal playing field and means that those without the connections miss out. Furthermore, depending on what the organisation is the implications could be far worse; the story of the Mexican nursery is case in point. We can’t always predict how serious the consequences of our actions at work can be.

    In response to your final point, I don’t think I would agree that a ‘prior relationship’ would make someone more productive in their role. It is useful, and normally essential to employ someone with a good reference from a previous employer, and along with interviews should be enough to assess whether a candidate is right for the role. But in my opinion, choosing to employ someone because you have a personal relationship with them is immoral favouritism and results in certain individuals and companies getting to the top for the wrong reasons.

  8. Brenda 17 February 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Great article, I agree with you. In Samoa in the South Pacific, the Prime Minister has his son in law as the Attorney General and his other son in law as the Chief Auditor. Both his son in laws report to him. He also has his son as an ACEO in the Ministry of Finance. Some people who are geneuinely qualified for CEO jobs do not get the job, despite being interviewed by a selection panel, as the job goes to the PMs relatives or friends, or to his minister mates who are involved in their corrupt circle. Now the latest development in the country is that Exhibition Travel Group (Deng Hong) from China are to build a hotel and building works begin in June 2013. The country didn’t know about it until this month when the govt just told the people and expect them to just accept it. No referendum, no opinions sought. So now the people want to petition the hotel and demand answers but are not confident because if they were to seek advise from the AG, it will be a dead end. He is the son in law of the PM.

  9. Alice McCool
    Alice McCool 18 February 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    Excellent example of the impenetrable political environment nepotism creates and why it cannot continue; how can the people hold these kind of governments to account?

    While it’s clear the kind of high level cronyism Brenda has described must be stopped, it is less certain how we should go about this. What do you think?

  10. Alice McCool
    Alice McCool 22 February 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Interesting BBC article about nepotism in Italy… http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21507168