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Local Government Facts

Using the Sort Function of a Word
Processing Program for a Preliminary
Inquiry into Nepotism in Local Government

Nepotism: The Background

The word “nepotism” is derived from a Latin word meaning “nephew.” It is generally defined as giving preferential treatment to close relatives. One form of nepotism involves hiring closely related employees. Another form occurs when employers pay relatives higher salaries for the same work that other, unrelated, employees perform for less money. Another example is favoring one’s relatives with a job or creating work for them. Ambrose Bierce offers a characteristically pungent definition for the practice: “Appointing your grandmother to office for the good of the party.”

Nepotism is not confined to government. One also finds it in private enterprise. For example, key employees of a private corporation might be related by blood or marriage. The owners of such enterprises would be irritated, or at least amused, by the suggestion that employing relatives is unethical or that the practice might threaten the survival of the corporation. After all, a private business is a form of property; its owners may do as they please with it, even unto bankruptcy. An important difference, of course, between nepotism in private and public employment is that, in the former case, if employee relatives are incompetent, the business will sooner or later disappear. In the case of government, no economic “hidden hand” functions to discourage nepotism. Government’s “no fault” perpetual-motion revenue mechanisms preserve the leviathan we call the state, whether its employees are honest, efficient, dedicated, or otherwise.

In the local governments in the county of my residence, nepotism almost never makes news, though it was the basis of a fairly recent feature story celebrating several branches of the same family employed in the same school district. However, a few other recent state and national examples have received the attention of the press, including

  • a senator arranging for his daughter to replace him in Congress
  • allegations that the top general of a National Guard bureaucracy gave his son a “plum headquarters job” after the latter was reported to have lost another position in the same organization because of accusations of adultery
  • an investigation into a large school district in the south disclosed that half of the district’s top administrators and one in five types of other employees were related

In the case of the school district news story, nepotism was not the reporter’s original focus. His nepotism article was a by-product of his original inquiry into how a school district created a potentially huge future financial burden for its taxpayers in the form of accumulated vacation and sick-leave time by school district employees.

Recently, a Midwest journalist complained in a by-lined article about the extent of nepotism in local government. The columnist seemed most disaffected by the growing perception among local citizens that their state’s reputation for government-by-relative was approaching that of a neighboring state, well-known for familial double-dipping. In another nearby state, a city enacted an ordinance aimed at preventing future employment of cousins or anyone who was married to or cohabiting with an employee.

Many American citizens, if they think about it at all, are ambivalent about the practice. While they may deplore nepotism in the abstract, some citizens seem to support it, judging by the occasional heart-warming articles in newspapers about second- and third-generation family members employed by the same local governments. Family members in New York City for decades have successfully sought jobs “on the cops,” and many of the Big Apple’s citizens regard this as a noble aspiration.

Almost any list of “red flags” in textbooks written for the accounting profession includes nepotism as a sure-fire symptom of fraud, graft, and corruption, and for good reason. Nepotism is one of the control mechanisms political bosses of earlier times used, and their counterparts today use, to accomplish their objectives of plundering the fisc. Boss Tweed of New York and San Francisco’s Abe Reuf were masters of this technique. Years ago, possibly because of the Good Government ideals of the so-called Progressive movement, nepotism was widely deplored. In fact, some local governments did not hire employees even remotely related to someone else on the public payroll. Eventually, that restriction was diluted so that hiring relatives to work in the same local government was allowed if they did not work in the same department. That proscription in turn has been watered down so that employees may work in the same department if one does not directly supervise the other.

Some nongovernmental watchdog organizations concerned with so-called third-world countries cite nepotism as a barrier to economic development. In recent times, we have heard of its presence in bureaucracies of the United Nations and the part it played in the corruption of governments such as Romania and the Philippines. Going even further back, one also finds the affliction at work in various books of the Bible.

When I hear the word “nepotism,” I often think of a seminar for law enforcement officers I taught some years ago. During one class, a female police officer commented that, although she was a skilled writer of police reports, her husband, a fellow officer, was not. She said that she often helped him write his reports on shift during quiet times. During a coffee break, I asked the officer if her department had a policy about nepotism. With no hesitation, she said “No, that’s an out-of-date idea. Several of the officers in my department are married. In fact, two of my former husbands also work for the department, and no one thinks a thing about it.”

Judging by the officer’s choice of words, she seemed to view nepotism as a sign of progressive personnel practices. As the class break was about to conclude, I refrained from informing her that nepotism dates back to biblical times and that its practice has for centuries been associated with corruption in government and tyranny; nor did I take time to ask her how many more of her other husbands were her colleagues.

Possibly the officials who should think “a thing” about nepotism in their city are themselves its beneficiaries. If so, one would not expect them to deplore the practice. Others who do think about it, though, might raise several objections to it. One of its features is that it is the antithesis of merit, which makes its practice in merit systems all the more ironic. I recall an episode in a university where I was once a faculty member. An opening occurred in our department, and a search began for a replacement. After weeks of advertising the vacancy nationally, we received many applications for the position, some of them from highly qualified candidates. To my surprise, the search committee discovered that the most outstanding applicant was the wife of one of the department “chairpersons” on campus. Naturally, some of us marveled that, after we worked diligently for hours on the search committee, the best candidate in the entire country was so near at hand.

When one reads in newspapers or academic publications that many people with advanced degrees cannot find teaching jobs, one wonders how many of these people would find employment if nepotism regulations were enforced in colleges and universities. Among its other problems, nepotism can also interfere with the internal processes of an organization. It is one thing, for example, to work with or supervise someone who has proven to be a poor recruitment choice. It is quite another matter when the person is closely related to someone highly placed in the hierarchy.

Some years ago, I read that the government of a Scandinavian country forbade nepotism on economic grounds, namely that, for every relative who is hired, someone else is denied a job, and, even more crucially, the purchasing power of single-income families must compete with that of families in which two or more members work for the local government to which they pay various taxes. I would not be surprised to learn that provisions against nepotism in that country no longer exist.

Recently one author wrote about the complexity of nepotism. At the time I wondered why anyone would think that the phenomenon is more difficult to understand than, for example, armed robbery. Consider, however, the problem of deciding where to draw the line on nepotism in an organization. It is not merely a matter of spousal relations. The list of relationships defined as nepotism by one United States agency consists of 26 different kinds of relatives, including brothers-in-law, half sisters, stepbrothers, uncles, and first cousins. None of the 26 relationships can be thought of as markedly distant. In California, a recent amendment to the Education Code forbids “A member of the governing board of a school district … from voting on personnel matters that uniquely affect a relative of the member….” The code section defines a relative “as an adult who is related to the person by blood or affinity within the third degree, as determined by the common law, or an individual in an adoptive relationship within the third degree.” In commonplace terms, such a person would be a first cousin or someone more closely related to a public official.

As with any practice affecting the integrity of a governmental institution, collecting evidence as to its extent is difficult. Many employees in a local-government agency might know which employees, if any, are married in the traditional sense of the word. Information about who is whose cousin or half brother or aunt might be more difficult to acquire. How, then, is an anti-nepotism ordinance enforceable without knowledge of who is related to whom? How is such information to be collected? And what should be done in cases in which morale has fallen so low because of nepotism that the lack of its enforcement threatens organizational effectiveness? How is nepotism to be dealt with in local government when an ordinance or regulation forbids it but has never been enforced, as is sometimes the case?

Nepotism is a concept about which Americans seem ambivalent. If this were not so, its practice would not occur in government agencies that have regulations against it. One can think of three reasons for this ambivalence. First, if one were to comment at a cocktail party about the disadvantages of nepotism, the first objection one would probably hear is, “Nepotism interferes with everyone’s right to a job.” Second, acceptability of “all in the family” employment practices is a symptom of the decline in what used to be known as “the common good.” By that I mean that, at one time, government itself was considered part of the common good. It is something that all of us own because all of us contribute to it. As we all have an equal interest in it, no one should enjoy an advantage in obtaining its benefits. The decay of this premise is enhanced by the third cause of its decline: The axiom of pragmatic competitive advantage is that, if you have it, exploit it. The point of competition American style, after all, is to win. And when plush retirement, medical, and financial benefits are the prize, how one wins is merely a minor detail.

Finally, nepotism is something of a civic curiosity in a democracy; it is, after all, a characteristic of many caste systems. In a country that prides itself on its democratic underpinnings, one would think it would be much deplored rather than tolerated, excused, or applauded.

The Method

Recently, a friend told me that the employment of family members seemed to be increasing in the local government from which he recently retired. The extent of nepotism, he said, was becoming a matter of concern because of pressure being applied to the governing body to extend family benefits to all cohabiting couples. Because no one knew exactly how many employees were cohabiting with another employee of the same department or elsewhere in the organization estimating the costs for the extension of such benefits was difficult.

My friend’s comment piqued my interest, especially because I have occasionally mulled over what methods a citizen could use to study nepotism in local government. The accuracy of my informant’s statement was, of course, something else to consider. Perhaps he was mistaken in his belief about the extent of nepotism in the organization. I asked him how many cohabiting relationships, other than traditional marriage, might exist in his segment of the organization. His reply was that he couldn’t answer that question off hand, but he began to count those of which he was aware. At about the fifth couple in a group of twenty colleagues, I decided that the issue was worth studying.

For some time, I have been interested in finding a project to test an idea, namely, whether the sort (or alphabetizing) function in a word processor has potential as a research tool. Of all its forms, nepotism in the sense of traditionally married husbands and wives working in the same local government is probably the easiest of its varieties to detect. For this purpose, discovering how many employees have the same last name would be a good beginning for a study of nepotism, though much more would need to be done to create an accurate census of nepotists.

The local government in question employs hundreds of men and women. Typing and alphabetizing their last names would therefore be time consuming. The nature of the organization is such that it could conveniently be divided into two classes: (a) a professional group, and (b) support staff. Because the first category is the smaller of the two, I limited my study to it.

One problem for such a study is the prevalence of common surnames, such as Jones, Smith, and the like. For example, the number of Jones surnames in the directory could be larger than a list of any other identical surname. Yet, other than siblings, none of the employees named Jones might either be married to or cohabiting with someone else on the same payroll. To discount that problem, one could remove the Jones count (or any other common surname) from the final tally. One might, of course, thereby omit some people with the same surname who were actually married or cohabiting, but erring by undercounting in this case is preferable to over counting.

To conduct such a study, one must obtain a current list of employees. With the growing tendency of secrecy in government, it would be unlikely that anyone in the personnel department of a public agency would willingly hand over a list of employees’ names. When I asked my informant about obtaining such a list, he said, “That’s easy; I’ll lend you my copy of the employee directory.”

The directory listed about 500 names alphabetized by more than 30 departments. Unless one has an unusually good memory, an accurate hand tally of a list this large would be time consuming and error prone, especially if the names were alphabetized by department rather than by the entire organization. When I first reviewed the list, I had the impression that it included a fairly large number of similar surnames. I soon discovered the cause of this mistaken conclusion: Some staff members have two or more job titles and were therefore listed more than once. This problem, of course, is easy to eliminate.

The alphabetized list disclosed that the most frequently tallied surname was that of one administrator whose name appeared in the alphabetized list six times. This person was in charge of six small units of the organization. Similarly, another employee’s name appeared four times in the directory for the same reason. The surnames of these people were not identical to the surname of any other person in the alphabetized list of all employees. This does not necessarily mean, however, that they are not nepotists. They might either be cohabiting with or married to another employee in the organization using a dissimilar surname. Or, they might be traditionally married to spouses who retained their family surnames. They might also be siblings.

Having obtained the directory, the next step was to enter the surnames it contained into a word processor and alphabetize them. After I obtained the document, I originally typed into the word processor only the surname of each person. This proved to be unsatisfactory. I therefore added to each surname (a) either the letters M or F, depending on whether the person’s first name was masculine or feminine, and (b) a number indicating the department in which each person was employed. Thus, the entry for each person looked like this: Listia, M5. In this case, the letter M indicated that the person’s first name was masculine and the numeral five designated the name of the department under which the person’s name was shown in the employee directory. Several hours were required to type the information for the employees of the organization into the word processor. That concluded, the next step was to alphabetize the list. To alphabetize the name file, one must, of course, activate the word processing “sort” function. The program then rearranges each name in the list in alphabetical order. This new list differs from the employee directory in that employee names are alphabetized for the entire organization rather than being listed alphabetically by department.

The sorted list appeared almost immediately. I saved this list under a new file name to preserve the original list that displayed employees’ names in alphabetical order under their department names. Therefore, I now had two files for this project: one contained the surnames as they were listed in the employee directory by each department of the organization; the second was the alphabetized list of each person’s surname in the “Professional” section of the employee directory.

The absence of first names in the test run restricted me from answering this question: Of the total “population,” what did the data show in terms of male and female representation throughout the organization? This issue was not, however, my original concern. Nevertheless, the striking disproportion of male and female names in the test run suggested an additional research issue and justifies the little effort required to add a male and female code to each surname.

The sort method I have described yielded a number of “couplets” (two identical surnames accompanied by a male and female first-name code). These findings were the obvious clues one would expect to find in a study of nepotism based on the study method. Although not conclusive proof of nepotism, the number of identical surnames was large enough to suggest that familial employment relationships might not be infrequent in this organization. To avoid the common name problem, I excluded from the count of couplets common surnames such as Smith, Garcia, and Jones.

Let us now consider what the word-processing file did not disclose. In this era, some married women do not use the last name of their husbands, or they use the name in hyphenated form, such as: Hilda Smith-Jones. The sorted list revealed several examples of hyphenated names among women but not men. And, of course, the list could not disclose which women, although traditionally married, did not use their husband’s surname. Overcoming these two limitations would require additional study that would be difficult for an “ordinary” citizen to undertake. However, assuming some legitimate basis for such an investigation, an official body such as a grand jury could obtain this information by, for example, the use of the subpoena process.

Another limitation of the sort function is that, by itself, it does not reveal the names of cohabiting employees (men and women who live together but who are not married in the traditional sense of the word). In a few cases, such people might be merely friends who are not on physically intimate terms. Although a count of cohabiting couples would be necessary for an accurate estimate of extending “fringe benefits” to such persons, seeking such information by interviews would no doubt raise questions about invasion of privacy. The legal implications of this problem are, of course, something to consider before undertaking a more thorough study of nepotism than I describe here.

Of course, the employee directory provided no information about “alternative” living arrangements. As a result, the final list of couplets is no doubt smaller than it would be in a more thorough study of nepotism. Obviously, not all the pairs or groups of similar surnames represent married persons. Some might be merely pairs of identical surnames and nothing else. In reviewing these couplets, I counted only those with surnames that would not ordinarily be thought of as common. In other words, I based the count of couplets on considerably less than half of the ones that the alphabetizing function of my word processing program revealed. This assumption no doubt resulted in a conservative count of traditionally married men and women. Based on discussions with several friends employed in the organization, it is possible that the number of men and women with dissimilar names living under the same roof would offset the couplets I excluded from the final tally.

I have not identified the name of the organization that is the subject of this essay. Moreover, I have somewhat disguised certain facts concerning it. Therefore, I do not report the exact number of employees for the segment of the organization in which I conducted the study. I have also somewhat altered the totals and subtotals in several places. However, I have preserved the proportions of most of the data. For example, toward the end of this report, you will find numbers concerning the proportions of “professional” to “support” staff. Although the true numbers are somewhat altered (perhaps between 4 and 5%), the proportions are consistent with the true numbers. I decided to do this not because of a desire to protect the identity of the organization, but to avoid something I have experienced before: dealing with the consequences of someone (a news-media person or other citizen with an ax to grind) who misused the data. To put it another way, the focus of this study is its method, not its findings.

An explanation about the term “support staff” is also in order. The employee directory was organized by sub-unit. Under the names of professional staff, a list of “support staff” was also shown. I have included these men and women in the various counts of names referred to in the next section. There is, however, a separate group of men and women also referred to as support staff but who constitute a separate branch of the organization: the people responsible for various daily plant and vehicle maintenance tasks, the purchasing function, budget preparation, and the like. The present study did not include this group.

Some Findings and Conclusions

The sort function of a word-processing program, though limited, was helpful for an exploratory study of nepotism in its most common form: married couples drawing a paycheck from the same organization. The procedure also yielded data useful for developing insights into other forms of nepotism in the organization. Even after eliminating common names from the count, the range of possible nepotism, depending on the assumptions one uses, is between 10 and 16% of the employees in the purposive sample of the organization I studied. This conclusion is based on hand tallies of the alphabetized list of employees that the word-processing program produced. A review of that list and casual interviews with several current employees yielded three possible forms of nepotistic relationships:

   
Number of     People    
   
 
1. A small group of five name pairs of either men or women with unusual surnames who could be sisters and brothers, sisters only, brothers only, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, etc. The true count of kinship categories of this class might be higher.
10
   
2. A group of 18 couples (men and women) with uncommon surnames, suggesting that they might be traditionally married or are siblings.
 36 
   
Subtotal
46
   
3. Interviews with several current employees suggested that the number of cohabiting employees in the organization may be at least equal to the possible number of traditionally married men and women.
 36 
   
Total
82

 

The above total might have been different had I included the uncommon surnames from the support staff, e.g., office workers, maintenance personnel, and their supervisors and managers.

Discounting the number of employees with more than one job title, the total number of employees in the section of the organization I studied is at least 500 people. Using this figure, the percentage of possible nepotists represented by groups 1 and 2, above, is 9%. Using the subtotal shown in 3, above (36), 16% of the employees are likely nepotists. This conclusion, of course, assumes that one thinks of these employees as “family members” for purposes of receiving extended benefits.

Using a database or spread-sheet program rather than the sort function of a word processor would permit several kinds of refinements for a more exact study. For example, one could include codes for some of the complexities, characteristics, and interesting issues in a large list of names, thus decreasing the time required for analysis and increasing its accuracy. Examples of such matters are

  • Sex of person not obvious from the first name
  • Number of names of people with more than one job title
  • Number of names to subtract from sort total because of possible job-title over count
  • Total number of surnames (including common names) appearing two or more times
  • Percentage of epicene female and male first names
  • Ratios of licensed, certificated, etc. employees to nonprofessionals (adjusted for job-title over count)
  • Surname Frequencies
  • Number of pairs of identical surnames
  • Number of identical surnames in groups of 3
  • Number of identical surnames in groups of 4
  • Number of identical surnames in groups of 5
  • Number of identical surnames in groups of 6

People interested in studying the extent of variations of numbers of professional and support staff by department may also wish to provide codes for this purpose. The following table depicts examples of how the resulting data might be displayed.

 

Number of Employees
         Classified as         
Sub-unit
Professional
Support
A
_____
_____
B
_____
_____
C
_____
_____
D
_____
_____
E
_____
_____
Etc.
_____
_____

 

Readers, advanced home-school students, their parents, news-media representatives, and other citizens who are interested in the social, political, and economic consequences of nepotism might contemplate these suggested study questions:

  • Suppose a law was passed that eliminated employment of nepotists in local, state, and federal government. Assuming that the percentage of nepotists nationwide in government employment equaled those in this project, how many jobs would be available to persons seeking employment if nepotism were forbidden?
  • Setting aside any arguments of a sentimental nature, what would be the social, political, and economic implications of nepotism if another great depression occurs?
  • Find information about the anthropological or sociological definitions and implications of “caste,” and consider them in the context of nepotism in public and private employment.

Suggestions for Further Reading

An Internet search using key words and combinations of words such as nepotism, graft, corruption, regulations concerning, United States government, state government, and local government will disclose dozens of law-review articles, examples of local-government regulations concerning nepotism, arguments for and against its practice, and so on. For readers not wanting to conduct such an extensive search, I recommend the following article: Richard D. White, Jr., “Consanguinity by Degrees: Inconsistent Efforts to Restrict Nepotism in State Government,” State and Local Government Review, 32, no. 2 (Spring, 2000): 108–120. To download a copy, visit www.cvlog.uga.edu.slgr/2000b.html. This article is well written, balanced, and comprehensive. It also has a bibliography of 25 references concerning a variety of issues related to nepotism. The bibliography will be of value to persons interested in laws pertaining to the subject, its role in the career of the infamous Huey P. Long, suggestions to school board members concerned about it, the costs of not enforcing anti-nepotism policies, its ethical dimensions, etc.


March 25, 2009

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