When Cronyism Backfires at Work

A marketing director I recently met was kicking herself for recommending a friend for a temporary position doing administration work for her boss.

"Everything started out OK," said Christie, who works at an arts organization in San Francisco. " And then the whining started."

The job was beneath him, didn't pay enough and wasn't what he saw himself doing long-term, her ungrateful pal whined. Then he told Christie that he "would be gone in a month or so."

Only he didn't quit. Instead, he stayed on nearly a year, "calling in sick once a week and showing up 30 to 45 minutes late every day," Christie explained.

But the slacking didn't stop there. There were the two-hour lunches, the "dental appointments" that required him to leave work early at least three days a week, and the maddening fact that he kept telling Christie about his necessary absences instead of dealing directly with his manager, something Christie was forever reminding him to do.

Fortunately for Christie, her boss was understanding of her predicament -- wanting to save the friendship, but not wanting to endure another protracted coffee break with her pal. Mercifully, the boss solved the problem by laying the loafer off.

I bring this story to your attention for a reason. Primarily, because most discussions of nepotism focus on how promoting the boss' boob of a nephew to a management position he can't possibly handle, drags down employee morale.

But how about the Christies of the workforce -- those of us who choose to help a friend in need with a glowing recommendation, only to regret the day we volunteered to stick their resume under the boss' nose? Just how badly can hiring a friend or relative backfire? And are we really doing our cronies any favors by letting them ride on our coattails and coast through their career?

It's Your Behind on the Line

When Detroit attorney Karen Evans was promoted from application processor to recruiter at the college she used to work for, she was asked to help find her replacement. An "unemployed, chronically dramatic" friend, known to be unreliable, begged to interview for the position, and Evans caved.

Unfortunately, her buddy's flakiness reared its ugly head the day of the interview: She called Evans' boss 10 minutes before the meeting, to cancel, saying she was no longer interested in the job. To top it off, she called the next day, too, this time because "she had changed her mind and now wanted to interview."

Unimpressed, the boss said no.

Mortified would be an apt description of how Evans felt, especially because her new title was "recruiter" and the last thing she wanted was for her boss to think she didn't have a head for the position.

"That experience has made me reluctant, ever since, to recommend anyone for a position unless I have personally worked with that person in the past," she said.

Wise decision, says business consultant Alexandra Levit, who has written about job hunting and hiring practices in three books, including "How'd You Score That Gig? A Guide to the Coolest Jobs (and How to Get Them)."

If a friend's or relative's resume or work history concerns you, "then you probably shouldn't refer them in the first place," Levit said. After all, your reputation's at stake, too.

Before you make any recommendations, "Talk to your friend or family member about why he wants a job with your company," Levit said. "Make sure he's truly interested, and not just looking to get a job with as little effort as possible."

No One Wants to Fire a Friend (or Can a Cousin)

If your pal or next of kin passes those litmus tests and you do decide to bring them aboard, save yourself the potential headache by steering them toward another department or branch, rather than working with them directly -- or worse, managing them. Then, give them the "no special favors" speech.

"Emphasize that you're thrilled she'll be joining the ranks, while making clear that she'll be treated as any other employee," Levit said.

Robert Holton -- who waltzed into his first sales position with Milwaukee employment agency SourcePoint Staffing in 1997 because his dad owned the company -- knows that speech all too well.

"I was placed in a geographically separate office from the corporate office and reported to the vice president," Holton said. "From the outset, my father made it clear that the VP had complete control over my training, development, and had the authority to fire if needed."

Still, that didn't stop Holton from trying to pull a few strings with Pop six months into the gig, when the vice president asked him to step into the role of recruiter, a demotion in Holton's eyes. True to his word, his father did not intervene.

"He made it crystal clear that I either take the role the VP had offered or I did not have a job," said Holton, who chose to stay on, and has since worked his way up to vice president of sales and market development -- on his own merit.

Cronies Deserve Honest Feedback, Too

But what if, despite your best pre-emptive efforts, you find yourself in Christie's situation, with a friend or cousin you recommended complaining or behaving badly on the job?

Gritting your teeth and telling them they're doing a "heck of a job" doesn't help the situation any. You'll still be aggravated, your colleagues will still be angry at the show of favoritism, and your crony will continue to fall short of expectations. In some ways, it's like passing the kid who can't read on to the next grade.

Likewise, none of us wants to have to tell a friend or relative that their job (and our respect for them) is on the line.

Fortunately, Levit says, there is another option.

"Tell him you heard through the grapevine that people think he only got the job because of you, and recommend that he take immediate action to counteract that perception. He'll probably shut up and get to work, as nobody likes to feel that they got something they didn't deserve."

This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com

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