The Virtues of Nepotism: Collectivism to build strong organisations

Nepotism is considered one of the great sins of Western culture. As society has been levelled by removing class distinctions and shaped to create a level playing field for everybody, regardless of race, religion, gender. Family relationships are not supposed to play a role in any one’s chances of success. The Wikipedia definition of nepotism is:

Favouritism granted to relatives or friends, without regard to their merit.

The Virtues of Nepotism: Collectivism to build strong organisationsWhen Ian and I undertook some research in Vietnam, we came across interesting recruitment practices. From our interviews with local managers, it became clear that using family networks is an accepted recruit source for staff.

From our data, we formed the hypothesis that recruitment in countries with a collective nature, such as Vietnam, is primarily conducted through social networks. This collectivism contrasts with the developed world, with a high level of individualism, where, especially in the government sector, a level playing field is created by publicly advertising positions.

in Hanoi, family networks are used as a primary recruitment source

Although Vietnamese practices smell like the dreaded nepotism, some people made clear to us that the family networks are used as a primary recruitment source, but within that pool of people, the selection is nevertheless based on merit. A training manager of a large company told us that they have many teams in which several generations of one family work together and that this creates a great culture and sense of common purpose within the organisation.

This sense of shared purpose is considered a holy grail by most organisations in the developed, individualistic, world. Many activities are aimed at ‘aligning’ people to the common objectives of the organisation. But given that most businesses are a grab bag of people, working together more by change than by common purpose, this has proven to be an illusive goal.

Research in Australia has shown that people recruited through anonymous sources such as newspaper advertisements missed almost twice as many days as those recruited through other sources, such as employee referrals.1 This research underwrites the importance of using social networks as a source of recruitment.

Human beings are inherently social creatures, and we like to spend our time with people we like. Within that, we have a definite bias for people that we are related to. One of the primary reasons many people don’t enjoy work is not because of the work itself but because of the people they are forced to socialise with. Open recruitment processes aimed at creating a level playing field are problematic, and many organisations use abstract tools, such as personality tests, and reference checks, which have been discussed recently.

Next time when hiring people, look around your immediate and extended social circle and see if there is anybody you would like to work with that can potentially do the job. The moral of the story is: nepotism is not inherently evil, as long as the final selection is based on merit.


  1. Breaugh, James A. (1981) Rela­tion­ship between recruit­ing sources and employee per­form­ance, absent­ee­ism, and work atti­tudes. Academy of Man­age­ment Journal 24(1): 142–147. 

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