Well-Intended Mess

In this post, I share a story about how a well-intended effort to work around a conflict of interest created an awkward and unsustainable situation. The perception of nepotism undermined the credibility of a new hire.

How One Workaround Leads to Another Workaround

This story is about a small, well-established private school.

Over the years, we had several instances where relatives of staff or faculty started working there as well.  This included the son of the Head of the School who reported to his parent. The Head and his son were both lovely people, but they were tone deaf to the fact that they were parent and son as well as boss and staff.

The son wanted to apply for a new position that had never existed before at the school as a tech coordinator. The son was an absolutely viable candidate. The Head of School normally would have said this is a hiring decision and it’s my decision to make and I am going to put my son into this role. But there was a huge pushback by both some of the staff and some of the parents. There was a group of parents who were already unhappy with the Head of School and they latched onto this.

We ended up running a search that completely excluded the Head from the process. I ran it as the Board Chair. We had a committee that included the Director of Curriculum, a couple other staff people, and myself. We did all the interviewing. At the end of the day, we did end up offering it the son because he was the best candidate. He had a better mix of the right skills than anyone else who applied.

The feedback I got from the parent community was that the board basically kowtowed to the Head and that it was nepotism, that it was not a fair process. There was no way to win. We took the Head out of the hiring process. But because we still gave the job to the son, there was the perception of nepotism.

Then it got even more complicated. This position reported to the Operations Director; not the Head.

The Director did not feel she could say anything critical about the son to the Head who was the Director’s boss and the son’s parent. She did not want to be in that awkward position. So, we created a special situation where I stepped in and I became the supervisor for the Director so the Head was taken out of the line of supervision.

Workarounds Lead to Unintended Consequences

The take away is that there are unintended consequences of what seemed like a good solution.

We had a lot of workarounds that did not work well for anyone. It was not a long-term solution because the Board Chair changes. And ultimately it was not good for the son who was competent and doing a fine job but was saddled with the aura of nepotism.

I went to the Head and said, “We have to change this. This is not going to work.” We had to let the son go. Basically, we realized that you cannot have two or more family members working at the school. And we developed a policy that a person cannot be an employee of the school and have a relative work there.

3 Comments

  1. Sorry you had to go through that. Being realistic about perceptions and the need to manage them is something I am reminded of often.

  2. one of the most important lessons I learned as I stepped into administration/leadership was the need to keep the “person” and the “position” separate. Hiring decisions couldn’t/shouldn’t be made based on the person but rather on the need for the position. It made no sense to me in the beginning (“but it’s all about the people!”) until I really started to see how decisions based on specific people were not sustainable or wise decisions. Your article speaks to this point beautifully.

  3. Craig Stewart

    Grear post Janet and not at all uncommon in the school world. I’m aware of the similar situations in almost every school!

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