Phillip Schofield scandal: HR's legal duty in nepotism

The news surrounding ITV and the departure of Phillip Schofield has sparked rumours of nepotism within the broadcast media giant - what are the drawbacks and legalities of it?

Nepotism refers to the practice of favouring relatives or close acquaintances when hiring or promoting employees and remains a controversial topic that has sparked debates among employment law experts, HR professionals, and employees.

Nepotism can be one of the hardest issues for an HR department to deal with. This is mainly because there are so many elements at play in the workplace that nepotism can be masked by other factors.

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HR professionals must be aware of the signs; knowing how to spot nepotism is the first step in making sure it doesn’t become an accepted practice within your company.

It has been questioned whether nepotism is illegal or not.

However, it can create circumstances where one person feels another is being treated more favourably or being subjected to detrimental treatment as a result - which can form the basis for a successful unlawful discrimination claim.

While nepotism may provide opportunities for job seekers and streamline the hiring process, it can breed resentment, hamper merit-based promotions, and undermine organisational integrity.

For workers who lack relevant work experience and personal connections, nepotism could be seen as widening the gap between those with ‘friends in high places’ and candidates who lack this privilege.


Risk of unsuitable hires

Hiring individuals solely based on familial connections may overlook their actual qualifications and abilities.

This can lead to less qualified individuals occupying critical roles, impacting the overall performance and success of the organisation.

Objectivity in the selection process may be compromised, resulting in suboptimal outcomes.


Sense of entitlement

This can be created where someone is given a title and responsibility without earning it, and they really don’t know what it takes to succeed.

Without working their way up through the ranks, the person won’t know the duties they will be supervising or appreciate the challenges to help mentor those reporting into them.

It is not uncommon for family members to assume they will move higher up the ranks more quickly and if that does not happen, resentment can breed very quickly.


Increased staff attrition

An environment characterised by nepotism may witness a higher rate of staff turnover.

Employees who feel undervalued or marginalised due to preferential treatment of others, may seek alternative employment opportunities, leading to a loss of talent and experience.

Unfair treatment resulting from nepotism can also expose organisations to potential legal repercussions, such as claims of unfair dismissal or discrimination in circumstances where less favourable treatment occurs and the individual has a protected characteristic.

Striking a balance between personal connections and professional merit is crucial to mitigate the negative effects of nepotism and maintain a fair and inclusive work environment.

By implementing transparent and unbiased recruitment and promotion processes, organisations can ensure that talent and qualifications are the primary criteria for success, while still recognising the value of personal connections and family businesses.  

Employers should aim to create a level playing field for all candidates and guard against the potential for nepotism to have a bigger bearing on who gets what job than demonstrable skills.

Pam Loch is solicitor and managing director at Loch Associates Group