Policy Guidance on Nepotism

The University at Buffalo strives to ensure that our employment and academic decisions are fair, merit-based and made with integrity. The Nepotism Policy promotes these goals and a culture of excellence. Personnel or academic decisions that favor relatives or friends undermine excellence by devaluing individual merit.

On this page:

Background

There are situations where we may have personal relationships with other employees at UB. For example, we may seek to hire a prospective faculty member’s spouse as a partner accommodation as part of our recruitment efforts. UB is a major employer in Western New York, and it is natural that spouses, friends or relatives might learn about vacancies from people they know. As other examples, an employee might find herself promoted to a supervisory position over coworkers she considers to be friends or a faculty member might start developing romantic feelings toward a post-doctoral employee whom he sees every day. These situations often require consultation and alternative arrangements to ensure fair evaluation and an absence of actual or perceived favoritism.

The topic of nepotism itself raises questions that make it a challenge to administer in the workplace and in classrooms. What counts as a “relative” under the policy? Does a second cousin count? An ex-brother-in-law? How close does a “personal relationship” have to be in order to fall under the policy? Can a faculty member socialize with graduate students on a regular basis without violating the policy? No amount of policy guidance can speak to every situation, as many of the situations we face will be fact-specific. If you have any question about a situation that could be problematic under the policy, contact the Office of Employee Relations, your area’s Human Resources liaison, the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, or Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for help.

Overview

The general approach you should take when considering a situation that could be nepotism is to assess whether the relationship in question could undermine the integrity of any employment, academic, research or procurement decisions between the parties to the relationship. Some questions to ask are:

  • What is the actual relationship between the two parties?
  • What role does one have in assessing, evaluating or grading the other?
  • Even if there is not a direct supervisory relationship involved, can there still be influence or an appearance of influence over academic or employment decisions?
  • Could employees or students reasonably believe that an academic or employment decision was based on something other than individual merit?
  • Could it appear that one party is using his/her position to benefit someone based upon their personal relationship?
  • Would I feel uncomfortable explaining the situation to an external auditor, the media or someone else in a position to question the situation?
  • Can I really say that there is a neutral evaluative relationship here?
  • Is the relationship impacting others in the department? Are people gossiping about it? Is it causing a negative work environment?

The answers to these questions should help to frame whether the situation could fall under the Nepotism Policy. Only when there is a conflict of interest that cannot be eliminated through any means, does the policy require that we terminate or not approve the hire of a qualified employee. The policy requires careful consideration to determine how we can structure the situation to eliminate the conflict and promote equitable decision-making.

Considering Relationships

The Nepotism Policy addresses three types of relationships: family, personal and romantic. Any of these relationships have the potential to create a conflict of interest where one party to the relationship is supervising or evaluating the other, or conferring some type of benefit such as participation in a paid research study or engaging in a contract for goods or services. The relationship will pose a conflict if it interferes with, or could reasonably be perceived to interfere with, a merit-based employment, academic, research or procurement decision. It is important to recognize that relationships that could pose a conflict include both those where one party may favor the other, and those where a decision-maker cannot be neutral because of personal animosity generated by a family, personal or formerly romantic relationship. For example, an employee who has experienced a bitter and contentious property dispute with a neighbor should not participate in search committee deliberations regarding the neighbor’s application for a position.

Search Committees

Serving on a search committee is a valuable service to the university community. It can also potentially place committee members in a position to evaluate candidates they may know personally.

The Nepotism Policy places the onus on search committee members to disclose situations where their neutrality may be questioned regarding a candidate. Search committee chairs should instruct members of the search committee to disclose any situation where they have a familial or personal relationship with a candidate. When a conflict exists, the search committee member should recuse himself/herself from any interviews with the candidate and any discussion, assessment or evaluation of the candidate.

If the search committee chair or subsequent decision-maker has the conflict, it may be good practice to have an additional review of the candidates by a university colleague or multiple colleagues who can provide a neutral look at the qualifications of the candidates. In some situations, the search committee chair or hiring authority may need to completely recuse himself/herself from the decision-making process entirely.

Hiring

UB may have legitimate reasons for seeking to hire employees who are related. For example, partner accommodations can strategically allow UB to attract highly qualified candidates and improve its diversity.

  • If an individual is a candidate for a faculty position, and has a research grant where his/her spouse is funded as part of the research team, and there is no evaluative or supervisory relationship between the two parties, an Alternative Arrangement agreement is not needed prior to the hire.
  • If an individual is a candidate for a department chair position and requires a partner accommodation for his/her spouse to be a faculty member in the same department, one party would be determining the terms or conditions of employment of the other; therefore an Alternative Arrangement agreement is required prior to the hire. A possible alternative arrangement is for the dean or an associate dean to supervise the spouse.

Tenure and Promotion

A faculty member who has a familial, personal or romantic relationship with a colleague who is being considered for tenure should recuse himself/herself from the evaluation process. If the relationship is with someone who would be expected to write a letter assessing the dossier of the tenure candidate, such as a department chair or dean, the letter should be written by someone neutral who is designated for this purpose.

Procurement

University employees have a responsibility to conduct university business ethically and responsibly. The purchase of goods or services from a business in which an employee or his/her family has a financial interest, or may directly benefit from the purchase, is a potential violation of the Nepotism Policy. These situations should be disclosed to the employee’s supervisor. In selecting a vendor, UB employees should be cognizant of relationships between UB decision-makers and those wanting to do business with UB. For example, a department director seeking to hire a consultant to perform training would be in violation of the policy if he/she decided to contract with his/her spouse, child, or other relative, even if that person were the most qualified to provide the service. In this situation, the director should recuse himself/herself from the decision and defer any decision-making to his/her supervisor, or to a colleague who is not subordinate to him/her.

Research

It is commonplace for faculty partners/spouses to work at the same university and, at times, to collaborate on research. The policy does not prohibit this collaboration. A faculty member, by nature of a research grant, determining terms and conditions of employment of a friend or family member, is in violation of the policy. Any decisions regarding compensation, evaluation, or other matters affecting terms and conditions of employment should be reassigned to an administrator or a different faculty member.

Similarly, nepotism should not influence the selection of research subjects. For example, if research subjects are paid to participate in a study, the subjects should be chosen in a manner free from nepotism and open to qualified members of the community.

Laboratory situations can make for atypical working environments, as they often involve long working hours, periods of downtime and interpersonal interactions that may not exist in other academic or working environments. While this will not violate the policy in and of itself, any close personal friendships or romantic relationships that result from working in a laboratory setting, as with any university setting, will require disclosure and a means of ensuring neutral evaluation.

Socializing

Supervisors and faculty must take care to ensure they have an appropriate amount of professional distance and appropriate boundaries with subordinates and students to render their evaluative decisions free from the appearance of impropriety. A workplace or classroom where there is perceived favoritism will consequently be one where the integrity of decisions is called into question. Periodic socializing with students or subordinates is not a violation of the policy in and of itself, and some socializing – for example, a faculty member having a drink with graduate students at a conference, or a supervisor having lunch with a subordinate – can be viewed as fostering collaboration or expressing support. Socializing can be problematic, however, if it creates a relationship where the supervisor or faculty member can no longer be perceived to be neutral. It also must be underscored that a supervisor or faculty member is expected to behave in an appropriate and professional manner toward subordinates and students even when socializing and regardless of the setting, as off-duty and off-campus conduct will impact the work and academic environment.

Conflicts may sometimes arise when a staff member is promoted to a supervisory position over coworkers who were previously considered equals and friends. It may be difficult for the new supervisor to form appropriate boundaries or to exert authority in a manner that is accepted by his/her new supervisees. Managers should be sensitive to this issue, and offer the necessary training and support to establish the supervisor’s place in the chain of command. This may require examining whether the supervisor has personal relationships with coworkers that require an alternative form of evaluation.

For More Questions

Support and guidance regarding the Nepotism Policy

Human Resources Liaison or
Office of Employee Relations

716-645-7777

Romantic relationships and compliance with the Faculty Code of Conduct

Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs

716-645-3594

Discrimination or harassment, including sexual harassment

Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

716-645-2266

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