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Nepotism is the problem; the challenge, transparency

Psychologist Omar Burhan discovered in his study of nepotism that the hiring of kin, even if they are competent for the job, makes people feel they are procedurally being treated unfairly. However, certain people are liable to believe that effective leaders transfer their traits to their offspring. PhD defence on 7 October.

Omar Burhan initially thought of nepotism, the hiring of kin, regardless of whether they are competent for the job, as something that happened mainly in developing or collective societies. ‘But then came Trump, closely followed by “Penelopegate” in France. All of a sudden, I started to see nepotism as something universal, not unique to developing or collective societies’.

Perception of nepotism

It is more important to consider lay people’s perception of nepotism than scientists’ perception of nepotism, in Burhan’s view. After all, lay people, such as employees of an organisation, are the ones who will actually be affected by nepotism or by anti-nepotism policy. In his research, Burhan required participants to read a vignette about a person who was either kin or not kin of a prominent person in an organisation, and about whether that person was competent or incompetent. The results suggest that whether someone is competent or not, their employment will be perceived as nepotism if they are related by kinship to a prominent person in their organisation.

Procedural fairness

Nepotism is problematic because it jeopardises people’s sense of procedural fairness in their organisations. In two studies, participants from more than 18 organisations in Indonesia were asked to reflect on a co-worker who was either kin or not kin of a prominent person in their organisation, and to evaluate whether that co-worker was competent or incompetent. Burhan then asked participants to rate the fairness of the hiring of their co-worker in terms of distributive and procedural fairness.

When the kin hired were viewed as competent, participants evaluated the hiring decision as distributively fair. However, at the same time, they remained suspicious that the hiring must have involved a violation of procedural fairness, that certain biases in favour of the kin must have played a role. These studies suggest that people mainly find nepotism unfair not in terms of distributive fairness, but in terms of procedural fairness, the procedure by which hiring decisions are made. Bruhan: 'I think the significant role of procedural fairness in nepotism perception is an important contribution to the scientific literature. '

Transparant procedures

The fact that nepotism perception is primarily about procedural fairness and secondarily about distributive fairness has important implications. Issues of nepotism often revolve around merit in hiring. As such, accusations of nepotism were thought to be easily countered by demonstrating the competence of nepotism beneficiaries. The importance of procedure in nepotism perception means that such an approach is not enough. Organisations need to put more effort into creating a procedurally fair hiring process that is perceived as such by their members, for example, by endorsing clear and transparent hiring and/or promotion procedures.


Burhan believes his thesis also illuminates why nepotism persists, despite its negative connotation in most societies. To investigate the persistence of nepotism, Burhan presented participants with the profile of a leader and asked who should succeed them. Participants with a high belief in the merit of nepotism tended to expect that a child of that leader would be more effective in terms of leadership than someone unrelated. This suggests that people expect children of effective leaders to bear similar traits to their parents. Such findings provide some explanation on how the Nehru-Gandhi family in India or the Bush family in the US retain their prominence in political circles. 

Banner: Former president of the US, George W. Bush

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