Last month, the University of Texas at Austin came under fire for alleged favoritism. Critics, noticing the low pass rates of the Texas Bar Examination by its law school graduates, accused the school of accepting unqualified applicants in order to curry favor with the politicians who recommended those students to the university.
The accusations are particularly distressing because the University of Texas is a publicly-funded school, and the citizens of Texas expect the school’s funding to go toward educating suitable candidates who will later contribute to society.
When poor performers are accepted as students at this renowned institution, they take the spots of other, more worthy potential students, and risk causing the school’s reputation to plummet.
Cronyism, Favoritism, Nepotism
The Markula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has researched the issue of jobs and other benefits going to undeserving, yet well-connected, candidates. The Center defines favoritism as rewarding a person because of some feature that’s irrelevant to whether that person does a good job, often because he or she is a member of a favored group or has a characteristic that the interviewer sees as desirable.
Cronyism is similar, but more specific: it’s favoritism of friends and associates. This is also known as “who-you-know,” and is particularly irritating to those who are well-qualified but poorly connected. Many a job seeker has seen a coveted position slip away because it was granted to a loosely connected acquaintance of the interviewer. Nepotism, a more focused form of favoritism, refers to unfair preference toward relatives, and has often been observed within the political arena.
Cronyism: Why Worry?
While employment experts recommend that job seekers network, network, network, there are drawbacks to hiring someone for a job or accepting them to a school because of the who-you-know syndrome. The most serious problem is incompetence. When a qualified candidate is overlooked, and a position goes to a well-connected but less-competent candidate, the ensuing work is likely to suffer.
Less-qualified people generally produce poorer work products.
In universities, if unqualified people are given research positions, the repercussions could ripple through society at large. If the people performing today’s important research have been hired solely on the basis of who they know, they might not be performing the research properly, or they might be missing out on executing important studies that could impact all facets of society.
Another problem is transparency. Because jobs and schools are not up-front about instances of favoritism, they risk losing the trust of the public and their good name when they engage in the unsavory practice. Likewise, when politicians confer favors onto friends and family, they can easily lose their reputations of fairness and integrity.
Implicit Bias and Favoritism
If favoritism and its affiliates bring negative results, why are they widely exhibited? One possible explanation is implicit bias.
An implicit bias is a subconscious attitude held toward a person or group. People are not aware of their implicit biases, but these biases insert themselves into a person’s behavior. For example, someone might verbally profess a sense of deep caring for pandas, but at a subconscious level, have a negative opinion of pandas. An IAT, or Implicit Attitude Test, tests for implicit biases by measuring people’s speed of responses to certain word combinations, such as ‘panda + messy.’
Favoritism, cronyism and nepotism all expose some form of implicit bias toward the chosen person and against the overlooked contenders for a position. Ernesto Rubin, as associate professor at Columbia Business School, and his colleagues demonstrated the long-reaching effects of implicit bias in a study published in the January 2014 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
They recruited 200 volunteers to act as either hiring employers or candidates for positions requiring math skills. Both the male and female employers chose to hire the male candidate twice as often as the female. Even when the “employers” were shown that the male and female job seekers had generally equal scores on math tests, they still chose to hire the male candidates 1.5 times more often than the females.
When the “employers” took the Implicit Attitude Test, the results showed that those with the greatest amount of implicit bias against women and math were least likely to hire women.
According to Rubin and his team, this study shows that a strong bias against women exists, and that probably explains why few women are hired to work in fields that require math, such as engineering. The implicit bias of employers leads them to show favoritism toward male candidates.
‘Who-You-Know’ vs. ‘What-You-Know’
In today’s hyper-connected world, the ‘who-you-know’ syndrome might be unavoidable. Often, skill and knowledge are not enough to get a foot in the door. Candidates know that looking for connections can always help.
Yet institutions, companies and organizations should be aware of the harm favoritism can cause; choosing a second-tier candidate can bring unfortunate results. Beyond that, they should be alert to the implicit biases often hovering beneath the surface of a seemingly innocent “favor.”