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Nepotism in the workplace

Nepotism at work can mean someone who’s closely related to a person in power gets favored for a job or a promotion — even when there’s another individual in the running who deserves it more.

And it’s far more common than you think it is. Matthew Staiger, a scientist at Opportunity Insights (a research institute at Harvard University), analyzed U.S. census data and discovered that nearly one-third of Americans will work at the same firm as their parent before turning 30.

Staiger also found that these young adults earn nearly 20% more than they otherwise would — and white men from high-income households benefit from nepotism significantly more than low-income folks, women and minorities do.

And this isn’t limited to, say, Silicon Valley tech companies or the finance industry. It’s a widespread practice across industries and in small and large firms alike.

“There’s a set of kids out there who, absent help from their parents, would end up really struggling to find a decent-paying job, and they’d end up at something like a fast-food restaurant,” Staiger told Harvard Magazine in June.

“But with the help of their parents, they end up at a construction firm or a manufacturing firm, a blue-collar-type job that often pay[s] much better than the minimum-wage-type jobs in the unskilled service sector.”

With U.S. job openings sinking to their lowest level in over two years and the number of resignations on the decline as of July, the labor market is cooling down.

It’s possible that Americans may need to prepare for fewer employment opportunities in the coming months — some of which could go to workers with closer connections.

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Should nepo babies get the advantage?

Staiger’s research shows nepotistic hires may stay at companies longer — increasing retention rates — but they aren’t always better at their jobs.

This is a problem for both the companies (which aren’t gaining the best workers) and potential employees who are more qualified for the role.

Tu believes nepo babies can get put into a role at their parent’s place of work — but they should be held to the same standards as anyone else if they’re underperforming at their jobs.

“I don't think they should get to stick around and coast, just because they got lucky with the genetic lottery.”

And Tu says it’s important for these individuals to be open and aware of their privilege, and recognize they have more resources accessible to them than the average person.

“You might have worked really, really hard — but other 23-year-olds who are working really, really hard don't have your job,” says Tu. “You got that job because daddy owns a company.”

There’s a soft skill that can help you slide to the top

Social capital — or forging connections through networking — can help with job referrals, access to more employment opportunities and overall career mobility.

But at your place of work, developing a better relationship with your managers or boss can be key to moving ahead.

Tu says “the smartest employees are not the ones that get paid the most” — it’s the ones “who schmooze.”

“I hate to say it, but [it’s] the person who has that relationship with their boss, the person that's always going to the work happy hour, the person that's putting in the legwork to build those relationships.”

The problem, she says, is that charisma isn’t necessarily easy to pick up and learn (especially if you’re not a super extroverted person) compared to more technical skills, like job-specific skills, and having more work experience.

Research suggests there’s a gender bias when it comes to schmoozing as well. A 2019 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research pointed to evidence of “the old boys’ club” at work.

Men advanced further in their companies after being assigned to work under managers who were men. They were more likely to share work breaks with their managers and gain knowledge of their preferences — and their pay ended up being 13% higher after two-and-a-half years, compared to men assigned to managers who were women.

On the other side of the spectrum, the manager’s gender had no effect on the careers of women employees.

That said, the researchers and Tu advise all employees — regardless of gender — to engage with their managers as much as possible to foster a better working relationship.

“If you are shy, you’ll have to make an effort,” says Harvard Business School assistant professor Zoe B. Cullen, who co-authored the paper.

“If you are a woman, you might have to try even harder.”

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About the Author

Serah Louis

Serah Louis


Serah Louis is a reporter with She enjoys tackling topical personal finance issues for young people and women and covering the latest in financial news.

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