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Nepotism: Bringing the Family to Work


October 30, 2014 by Paul Sullivan
Category: Recruitment and Hiring

Nepotism: Bringing the Family to Work

Can the parks director hire his brother as a lifeguard at the municipal pool? Is it all right for the county treasurer to hire her spouse as an administrative assistant?  The answer to each of these questions requires a review of the practice of nepotism, as well as conflict of interest law.

What is “nepotism”?

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, nepotism is “the unfair practice by a powerful person of giving jobs and other favors to relatives.” In government, nepotism is typically the practice of those with appointing authority giving jobs to relatives.  As an example, one of the Brazilian presidential candidates recently accused her opponent of nepotism because he gave government jobs to his sister, uncles, and cousins.

Although not technically nepotism (which involves a person hiring a relative), some local government personnel policies prohibit the employment of a current employee’s relatives, regardless who makes the hire.  See, for example, Woodinville Ordinance No. 469.

Is nepotism bad?

It might be if, due to favoritism or family ties, persons are hired into positions they are not qualified for (and those who are qualified are not considered for employment). Civil service was established partly to eliminate nepotism in hiring.

Are there some practical reasons why a person should not be hired because of nepotism?

First, I want to note that, under regulations adopted by the state Human Rights Commission, it is an “unfair practice” and prohibited discrimination for an employer – local government or otherwise – to refuse to hire a person simply because his or her spouse is already employed by that employer, unless: a bona fide occupational qualification applies (see WAC 162-16-240); or the employer is enforcing “a documented conflict of interest policy limiting employment opportunities on the basis of marital status”:

  • Where one spouse would have the authority or practical power to supervise, appoint, remove, or discipline the other;
  • Where one spouse would be responsible for auditing the work of the other;
  • Where other circumstances exist which would place the spouses in a situation of actual or reasonably foreseeable conflict between the employer’s interest and their own; or
  • Where, in order to avoid the reality or appearance of improper influence or favor, or to protect its confidentiality, the employer must limit the employment of close relatives of policy level officers of customers, competitors, regulatory agencies, or others with whom the employer deals.

WAC 162-16-250. These circumstances above may also provide practical, “business necessity” reasons for denying employment when family relationships other than spousal are implicated.

Is nepotism illegal?

No, it is not, except in certain circumstances involving a spouse hiring his or her spouse. RCW 42.23.030 prohibits a municipal officer from having a financial interest, directly or indirectly, in any contract made by, though, or under his or her supervision – with certain exceptions. Because an employment relationship is contractual in nature, this statute will, in most cases, prohibit the hiring by a local official of his or her spouse since, in Washington, one spouse usually has a legal interest in the other’s earnings due to community property laws. (It does not, however, prohibit a local government official’s spouse being hired by another official within that local government.) Exceptions to this prohibition include, for smaller cities (population under 10,000) and counties (population under 125,000), hiring a spouse into a position that pays $18,000 or less in a calendar year. In the case of a rural public hospital district, an exception is available for contracts valued at $24,000 or less in a calendar year.

If it is not illegal (except when a spouse is hiring his/her spouse), can a local government prohibit nepotism?

Yes, and some do. In the State of Washington, all local governments have the authority to establish rules and regulations governing their internal operation, and that would include the ability to impose restrictions on the hiring of relatives.

Can you give examples of anti-nepotism policies?

Sure. Here’s one from Olympia (prohibits employing a city employee’s relative in certain circumstances), one from Spokane Valley (prohibits employment of family members where one family member has the authority to supervise or audit the work of another family member), and another from Thurston County (no member of a person’s immediate family may be employed in same office or department as current employee or board member, but with some exceptions). Type “nepotism” into our Custom Search of Washington City/County Codes and you’ll find a number of other examples.

The opening paragraph sets out some questions; how would they be answered?

If there is no anti-nepotism policy, the parks director may hire his brother as a lifeguard at the pool. But the county treasurer could hire her spouse as an administrative assistant only if the county has a population of 125,000 or less and the position pays no more than $18,000 a year.

Photo courtesy of Mpls55408.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul has worked with local governments since 1974 and has authored MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operation. He also provides training on the Open Public Meetings Act.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Paul Sullivan

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