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Coffeepot Chatter: Nepotism

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Maria: (Reading email.) Tom, my niece will be home from college in a few weeks and is asking if we have temporary jobs for the summer. I know we are hoping to hire someone part time to do filing . . .

Tom: Yeah, but she shouldn’t work with us.

Maria: Not even on a temporary basis?

Tom: Not a good idea, she’s your relative. The university policy states relatives should not work in the same department as another relative. Another department should be ok.

Maria: How do I find out which departments have summer work available?

Harry: Some departments regularly need summer help. Other departments may post wage/hourly positions on the HR web pages.

Maria: Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that. I’ll take a look at it. Thanks.


    The word nepotism is from the Latin word nepos, nepotis (m. "nephew”), and it’s no wonder. Would Caligula have gotten the job of emperor if it weren’t for his great uncle Tiberius

    These days, nepotism in the workplace is viewed as favoritism toward any family member and could include:
  • Helping someone get a job, just because he or she is a relative
  • Giving preferred work assignments to a relative
  • Overlooking performance issues
  • Giving a promotion that is not warranted by merit or qualifications
  • Making other decisions that favorably impact a relative based solely on his or her relationship.
In general, making any employment decision based on kinship alone is considered nepotism.

Is It Illegal?

    Most people would agree that giving anyone preferential treatment based on a relationship or anything other than merit and qualifications is unfair. However, hiring a relative isn’t illegal.

    Still, having relatives working closely with one another can have a negative impact in the workplace. Whether the nepotism is real or only perceived, it can affect other working relationships and overall office morale. That’s why Lehigh has a detailed nepotism policy (Human Resources Policy #203 Employment and Placement of Relatives) which defines what a “close relative” is, and states, in part:

 … university faculty and staff members are not to initiate or participate in university decisions involving a direct benefit (for example, initial appointment, reappointment, promotion, salary, or leave of absence) to their relatives.

Tips For Following Lehigh Policy


    The Lehigh nepotism policy is straightforward, but here are a few friendly Roman Empire reminders to ensure that you or your office remains in compliance:

  • Build Hadrian’s Wall: Lehigh’s policy states that “no individual shall be employed in a department or area under the supervision of a close relative who has or may have a direct or indirect effect on the individual’s progress, performance, or welfare.” This “wall” of separation is important for maintaining morale and avoiding potential conflicts of interest.
  • Amor Vincit Omnia: Love may conquer all things, but in the workplace, it can present challenges. It is not unusual for colleagues to become close relatives in the course of their working relationships. If this happens between people who have a supervisory reporting relationship, the policy states that “continued employment in that department can occur provided a satisfactory arrangement is outlined and approved in advance by the appropriate vice president and the Associate Vice President for Human Resources. To avoid awkward work situations, these arrangements will restrict any supervising family member from making decisions that will directly affect a relative and will restrict access to relevant confidential information.”
  • Et Tu Brute?:  Yes, even Brutus (if he were a wage or temporary employee) would have to comply with the policy. So, as Tom tells Maria in the dialogue above, her niece should look for a position in another part of the university.
  • What About Romulus And Remus?: Finally, the policy recognizes there can be circumstances where employment of two members of the same family in a single work area is desirable. In such cases, if a supervisory relationship results, the policy’s application may be appealed to the appropriate vice president and the Associate Vice President for Human Resources.

    If you need more information about the university’s policy on employment of relatives, please contact Judy Zavalydriga (extension 83897, jaz308@lehigh.edu) or Linda Parks (extension 85195, linda.parks@lehigh.edu) in the HR Office.

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Spotlight is published monthly by Human Resources. Please address any comments to Hillary Kwiatek, Spotlight Editor, Human Resources, 428 Brodhead Avenue, send email to hik210@lehigh.edu, or call extension 85165.

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