Agencies Are Entering a 'High-Risk Period' for Nepotism, Report Says

Every agency, as well as the current and future presidents, should take steps to ensure they are reducing the potential for nepotism in their ranks, especially during the upcoming transition to a new administration -- a particularly "high risk" period for those in positions of authority to show favoritism toward relatives, according to a new report.

Agencies need stronger governmentwide guidance in soliciting information from job applicants that could identify how those prospective employees might benefit from family members who already work at the agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board found. The upcoming transition will see a slew of new political appointees taking office without prior experience in the civil service, MSPB said, noting the importance of quickly training those new hires so they “conduct themselves in accordance with the law.”

“Transition plans should include preparations to educate political appointees about the [prohibited personnel practices],” the quasi-judicial agency wrote, “including nepotism, and how PPPs such as nepotism can be avoided.”

Nepotism specifically applies to employees who involve themselves in personnel decisions relating to their parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, first cousins, in-laws and other relatives. Nepotism can be a criminal act if an employee makes a decision with a financial impact on a spouse or minor child, but is more typically an administrative offense with punishments up to firing. Acts of nepotism generally involve hiring, promoting or advocating for a relative, according to MSPB, but can also include decisions affecting pay, benefits, awards, duties, responsibilities and working conditions.

In some cases, employees can be at fault without committing a specific prohibited practice. MSPB cited one example in which an agency appropriately removed a food inspector who failed to disclose his son worked an entity he had to inspect. The agency noted the employee was a good performer, but should have known he had to disclose the connection.

MSPB called on agencies to educate their workforces on the requirements to avoid nepotism and to better use their human resources staffs to make those policies known. Agencies should hold not just employees accountable for their own actions, but supervisors as well for the actions of their subordinates. MSPB encouraged agencies to send the message to employees they should report instances of nepotism, as whistleblowers are the most effective form of outing the practice.

The Office of Personnel Management should issue new guidance spelling out when agencies should use optional form 306, which requires applicants to disclose relatives at their agency. Current guidance, MSPB said, is unclear, incomplete or ignored. Some of the HR agency’s guidance on nepotism has been out of date for more than two decades, while other documents send fail to distinguish between what is required versus what is recommended.

MSPB last polled the federal workforce on their perceptions of nepotism in 2010, with results varying across government. Among large agencies, between 3 percent and 16 percent of employees reported seeing family members giving each other prohibited legs up. Just the perception can be a problem for agencies. MSPB cited data showing employees who said they had seen nepotism at their agency were less engaged and motivated.

To employees who feared becoming involved in nepotism, MSPB recommended consulting an ethics officer. Employees could also disclose any potential issue to the appropriate agency official or recuse themselves from the situation entirely. 

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