It’s Not What You Know: Nepotism in the Workplace

So it was Work Experience Week in secondary school and you spent a few days taking advantage of the free hot drinks at the local shop. Or maybe you sat in your well-meaning local MP’s office attempting to look busy. While this is perfectly harmless, if your perfect internship or job could be landed with just a politely worded email to a distant great aunt, could you honestly say you would feel guilty grabbing the opportunity? Of course not. And it is natural for parents, who want the best for their children, to use their contacts to help their offspring get a foot in the door.

But as a developed society that has moved beyond a tribal existence and which requires more than just a surname and blood relatives as qualifications, one must question the integrity of this underhanded system. We would undoubtedly question the competency of a surgeon whose family dragged him through medical school unwillingly, or perhaps even a pretty celebrity chef who happens to have a particularly famous grandfather (yes, Miss Dahl, put the wooden spoon down you’re not fooling anyone). Yet the existence of the Bush family line of presidents and senators, the Al Fayed empire, the Murdoch media, the Gadaffis and even our very own Royal Family, shows simply which family you are born into can secure you a life of success whichever career path you choose.

One of Nick Clegg’s more recent embarrassments was his admittance that in his youth, his wealthy banker father helped him secure a work experience placement in a Finnish bank. Quite the hypocritical statement taking into account that he had previously spoken out against ‘tennis club parents’ monopolizing internships for their children. “I think the whole system was wrong,” he added, “I am not the slightest bit ashamed of saying that we all inhabited a system that was wrong.”

Very modestly spoken, but it is plain to see that our current prime minister shares a typically upper-class view on nepotism in the workplace. Mr. Cameron told The Daily Telegraph that he was “very relaxed” about helping out friends and family with internships at Downing Street, and would in fact be welcoming a neighbour for a work experience week imminently. The PM said he himself experienced a “definite leg-up internship” at his father’s stockbroker firm in the past. Of course, his comments caused an uproar and immediately the credentials of this lucky neighbour (definitely from the local comp, not a private school) were questioned.

But Mr. Cameron’s attitude only emphasizes the plain unfairness of a system such as this. While the lucky 7% of charmingly articulate, well-connected private school students have an advantage, as well as the provisions to take on unpaid internships, the majority of school-leavers and graduates are left to sink or swim. Gus Baker from pressure group Intern Aware said: “He might think he’s giving his neighbour a leg up, but what he’s actually doing is pushing down other talented young people who aren’t lucky enough to live next door to the PM.”

That is not to say that those who are well connected are devoid of all talent, but we must question an unfair system of internships, which reinforces privilege and may be keeping new talent out. Nigella Lawson’s lip-smacking cookery books and programs may not have made the grade against Michelinstarred chefs if her dad had not been Chancellor of the Exchequer or if she’d missed out on her Oxford education. I have found that even in the intensely competitive world of journalism, there are disappointingly poor articles from descendants of authors, politicians and socialites who are too given priority over new names.

Although chances are slim for those unknowns with no handy family connections, and a home far away from the plethora of opportunities in London, there are a few success stories to look up to. Cheryl Cole sprung from anonymity to super-stardom with a cheeky Geordie wink and sheer grit and determination. Barack Obama was just a mixed race boy from a single parent family in Hawaii before he undertook years of gruelling voluntary community work, fighting many prejudices and closed doors on his path to the White House. Unfortunately, these examples are few and far between. The rich and privileged are invited to a party of prize giving that the less well connected don’t know is even happening. Nepotism isn’t acceptable, but it is inevitable.

Jessica Farrugia Sharples

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One Comment
  • dan
    30 September 2011 at 13:56
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    Its only inevitable on a small scale but societally. That’s a political decision. It is now supported by a system which embeds capital whichis the opposite of meritocratic. Sure it always happened to a degree but the whole point of free education was to give a leg-up, to develop a sense of a fair playing field. Bourdieu was predicting all this in the 1960s; the embedding of social capital under neo-liberalism. So its parents who have voted this system in, Labour who’ve continued it and the present Govt is taking it even further by cutting away at community programs and replacing it with a facade called Big Society.

    Its ironic that while Cameron and Blair didn’t need free educations, they still got it. And Thatcher, the political implementer of our system needed a free education and got it. Without it, only those with capital will prosper. Welcome to a have and have-nots society. Or the 1920s.

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