Are we declaring our euphemistic nephews?

A COUPLE of years back there was a time when I badly needed to get something sorted through a government department.

Sam Hlabati

The idea of standing in long winding queues for hours got me worked up even before stepping my foot anywhere near the place.

I shared my pessimism about the impending task with a colleague. The colleague comforted me telling me he knew of someone who could help me without the need to stand in any queues.

I did not have to pay anything my colleague assured me. When I had completed my transaction, I later inquired from my colleague how he got such a contact that could do favours for him without the need to pay.

The explanation was that the contact at that state department had been employed by my contact’s relative in a high place through my contact’s recommendation.

Recalling this event recently got me thinking about the concept of favouritism, nepotism and cronyism. These terms, as you may agree, are usually used by journalists in news pieces attached commonly to politicians and public office bearers.

Favouritism is just what it says; it is an act of favouring a person because of some superfluous membership of a favoured group.

I got my favour not to stand in a queue by being part of the “boys dzangu” (my connections) group of the person who helped me at the government department; simply because I was known to the person who got him into that organisation.

Take this concept into the broader socio-political context, that would for example be those instances when public service jobs or state business contracts are given to those who may have helped elect the person who has the power to effect the appointment.

Let us zoom into an organisation. The political grand-standing of those who are under a leader could include the boot- licking of “yeah baas” manners and the singing of praises, when such praises are not due.

We have discussed the Imbongi (praise singer concept) in this column before.

Favouritism tends to be exercised to the benefit of the praise singer through a relationship more cordial than that which is shared with the rest of the team.

We are discussing that phenomenon of the team who is favoured by the leader, the individual who is always at hand to “second the motion” whenever the boss makes a suggestion that enjoys no popularity among the team members.

Dear Leader; I am talking about that individual who is always “sensible” and “sees the logic” whenever you make a suggestion. They are an asset in the team. So you think !

General George Smith Patton, Jr. (11 November 1885 – 21 December 1945) who was a US Army General during World War II and was known in his time as “America’s Fightingest General” was quoted for saying “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”.

There is nothing obscenely wrong with liking likeable team members, however problems set in once particular special treatment is directed towards likeable members at the expense of the ones who are “thinking”.

There is a more specific form of favouritism, which is the partiality towards friends and associates, commonly known as cronyism. While there is an old saying that goes like this, “It’s not what you know but whom you know”, in contemporary times judging from the inherent incompetence that comes with cronies appointed to doing the job at hand; “It’s not what you don’t know; it’s who you or your friends know”..Cronyism occurs within a network of insiders, the “old boys club”; ladies, we will not discriminate for we know there is the “girls club” also. I was informed by a female colleague that I should drop “old” for the girls because their networks keep revolving, new girls join and other girls exit.

Business people are constantly in lamentation about their frustrations when they fail to get government contracts because someone known to the “big one” got it instead.

I believe that a sizeable number of morally conscious people would agree that unethical behaviour should be stamped out wherever it manifests, irrespective of the size of the transactions involved. Let us look at an organisation as an entity.

There are purchases that have to be made from time to time in the course of the operation of the business. We are focusing on the purchases of services and tangibles of all sizes for which a quotation has to be sought and an order would be raised.

Some organisations make it a requirement that there should be a certain number of quotations that should be sought, then these are compared and the decision makers ultimately choose one quotation. The semblance of good governance that is sought by adopting the multiple quotations method is noble. However, we need to focus on the methodology used or manner in which the quotations are acquired.

You may have guessed right, the person assigned the duty makes a few phone calls to get the quotes in.

In the absence of public databases of service providers; the first source of contacts is the already known contacts, the second source could be the telephone listings. For the non–capital intensive purchases (relevant to the context of the organisation), the open tendering processes are rarely used.

In our economy, the informal sector and small enterprises have usurped the role of providing non–capital intensive commercial goods. The same non capital intensive products are procured on the seemingly standard “three–quotations” basis.

How many times do organisations procure services and products that are supplied by informal/small enterprise supplier who are said to have come in “highly – recommended” by one of their own team members?

Statements such as “she/he is the best in that area” or “they are professionals” are easily accepted by those who sign the cheque.

Do not get me wrong on this one colleagues, there is absolutely nothing wrong in a team member pointing the organisation in the right direction rather than waste time hunting through a multitude of chancers.

Be that as it may, what are the safeguards against cronyism in such referrals?

Maybe the question should be; Is it possible to eliminate cronyism? Our modern world emphasises that networking is a useful business tool. Companies are usually interested in the close relations their team members have with important people in the organisations they deal with; could that be seen as preparing the platform for canvassing for business deals through cronyism?

There could be a benefit that could be derived from ensuring that whosoever refers a business contact developed through close relationships; should declare any prevailing conflict of interest and duly fully recuse themselves from any of the negotiations their organisation will enter into with the referred contact.

Maybe the referring team member should not be taken into the negotiations on the basis that they know the potential business contact and their relationship would help in the “talks”.

Maybe the referring person’s active involvement would give rise to a more “credibility” claim that they assisted the potential business partner in getting a “better deal”, hence they would be due for a reward from the potential business partner.

Cronyism is usually supported by the exchange of some economic value between the “deal maker” and the “deal winner”. Repeated cronyism will escalate into an avalanche of corruption. Always remember corruption is not confined to the public service processes only, it also happens in private corporations.

Legend has it that there has been a historic practice of popes in the Roman Catholic Church to confer important positions to their nephews.

This practice was called nepotismo in the Italian language; with its origins in the Latin word nepos; meaning grandson or nephew.

Since a pope would have taken the vow of chastity, therefore usually had no legitimate offspring of their own, they gave their nephews such positions of preference as were often accorded by fathers to son.

Though some say the nepos was the pope’s illegitimate son who was euphemistically called a nephew. The term was extended to modern day use to mean the granting of favours in business and politics to family members.

In hard times, we are all inundated by requests for employment by relatives and friends looking for a lucky break .

The question is; Should a person who is adequately qualified for a job be denied an opportunity to join an organisation because they are related or closely linked to someone in the organisation? Maybe from another perspective; Should the organisation be denied the opportunity to use the services of such employees?

Could the same principles of declaring any conflicts of interests not be used in employment processes? Thus both the applicant and the team member referring them should declare their relationship up front.

It would make good sense to ensure that the person who is known to the applicant should recuse themselves from the entire recruitment and selection process.

Should the applicant be successful, the prior declarations should help the organisation in managing the conflict of interest that could arise in reporting lines which if unattended could give rise to favouritism.

In a world of close relations and networking, the only way to control favouritism, cronyism and nepotism is to exercise good governance through declaring our euphemistic nephews for whom they are; our sons.

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). Email samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati