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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Wednesdays we talk about the workplace. And today we're going to look at an issue that American business does not like to talk about much - nepotism. It may be acceptable for political families like the Kennedys or the Bushes or the Clintons, but the corporate world likes to think of itself as the ultimate meritocracy, which of course doesn't mean that nepotism doesn't exist.

That at least is the word from Gill Corkindale, a columnist for Harvard Business Online. She is not afraid to talk about it, so we asked her to join us from London. And by the way, we chose her because she's my sister-in-law.

Welcome to the program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Not true. But in any case, you've studied this and I understand you've had some personal experience with nepotism in places where you've worked.

Ms. GILL CORKINDALE (Harvard Business Online): I have indeed. I've worked in quite a lot of newspapers in the U.K., and nepotism is more than a fact of life. It's actually rather endemic. And my own experience was with a young man who just joined the paper and after a few months of helping him adjust to his role, I suddenly found myself in position where he'd become my boss.

INSKEEP: What was the relationship?

Ms. CORKINDALE: It was a nephew. It was the nephew of an editor. The rise was effortless and my path was to move into a different career.

INSKEEP: Why is it the right thing to challenge this?

Ms. CORKINDALE: Well, I think what was interesting about this blog, this post, was that of all the posts I have written, it seemed to draw the most responses.

INSKEEP: Well, let's mention that, that you wrote about this online.

Ms. CORKINDALE: I wrote about this for Harvard Business Online, and the blog is called Nepotism: The Unspoken Rules. What was interesting about this blog, this post, was that of all the posts I've written, it seemed to draw the most responses. The final comments I got and the stream of comments was from somebody who said he really felt that if the son of a boss had been given a job which he was not qualified for, which he didn't really have the experience for, he risked alienating himself among his peers, obviously, and perhaps making a fool of himself. But he might never really learn the rules for work. He might never learn to actually develop your potential to achieve things of your own.

INSKEEP: Now, I suppose this is a difficult subject because there certainly are occupations and professions where the profession just runs in the family, whether you're talking about government service of various kinds, the military, certain kinds of union work, your generations of carpenters. You could think of any number of things where it's just the kind of occupation that people pass down. What's wrong with that?

Ms. CORKINDALE: Well, you're absolutely right, and it would go from, I suppose, you might have had medieval craftsmen who would have a guild who would pass a skill on some father to son. And there's something about that tacit knowledge about being around carpenters or merchants where you do pick up that knowledge.

I think where it's different is in business because I believe that should be a meritocracy where people - people train, people taken MBAs, they get experience. And I think sometimes for people in business to have these situations where they suddenly find themselves working for the boss's son and not knowing really how to deal with that, that can be extremely difficult.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that in practical terms. Let's say you are working for the boss's son; what are the dos and don'ts?

Ms. CORKINDALE: It might be that idea to sound out your boss and see what they think, and maybe they're putting their son in that position to challenge them. Maybe they're doing it to help them develop, in which case you might get a steer from them as to how to handle them.

If it's not a sort of relationship where you can have that discussion and your choice, I guess, is to either treat them as you would treat everybody else or perhaps to try and think about your career and maybe handle them with kid gloves a little bit, I guess that's a personal choice you'd have to make. Do the right thing and jeopardize your career potentially, or manage your career, shall we say, a little bit more effectively.

INSKEEP: Gill Corkindale of Harvard Business Online. Thanks very much.

Ms. CORKINDALE: Thank you.

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