Is Nepotism Illegal?

Lots of employers play favorites amongst their employees.  We get calls every day where employees feel that they are being treated unfairly because they are not family or friends with a supervisor or owner of the company.  Does an employer have to treat all employees “fairly,” and when is unfair treatment illegal?

It is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, among other things.  It is not illegal to have favorite employees or to treat all employees the same.  It is very common to hire family members or friends of owners, supervisors, or other employees, and it is legal to hire those friends and family members over other applicants and to treat them better as employees- most of the time.

“Nepotism” is the practice of giving jobs or favorable treatment to friends and family members.  Nepotism in and of itself is not illegal.  A company owner is allowed to hire a daughter, son, sibling, friend, or any other person they like, even if that person is not the most qualified for the job.  In fact, hiring and promoting family is an extremely common employment practice dating back to the beginning of employment.

However, what some people may consider “nepotism” becomes illegal when it is actually determined to be illegal discrimination.  For example, say a small business owner belongs to a certain church.  If the business owner only hires people from the same church or religion, or gives employees from the same church or religion preferential treatment over other employees, this goes beyond just hiring a family member- this is religious discrimination, because employees are being treated worse based on their religion.

Another example of “nepotism” crossing the line into illegal employment practices that we see frequently is letting family get away with illegal behavior.  Just because an employer is used to putting up with a relative’s bad behavior does not mean the relative’s coworkers should be subjected to illegal harassment too.  If an employee engages in sexual harassment, or racial harassment or some other illegal behavior in the workplace, and the employer lets it go without taking action because the harasser is family, the employer’s tolerance of that harassment is illegal.

If your employer’s practice of nepotism has led to discrimination or harassment based on a protected status, call Gold Star Law to learn your rights and what you can do.