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County employers say nepotism not a problem

November 15, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Whenever two relatives punch their time clocks at the same company, it opens up the potential for all kinds of problems - from favoritism to morale.

Despite that, Washington County personnel directors said it's not rare for companies to hire two members of the same family.

Many employers in the county allow family members to be hired as long as relatives don't work in the same department or someone is not in a position to supervise a relative.

The issue of nepotism surfaced this week when it was revealed that two relatives of Washington County Human Resources Director Alan Davis were hired by the county in 1992 and 1993.

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Although the county doesn't ban relatives from being on the 600-person county payroll together, it "strictly prohibits" Davis and other supervisors "from attempting to influence the hiring or recommending the employment of relatives."

The policy mirrors the policies of several large county employers, including Citicorp.

"The employment of relatives of active employees is permitted provided it doesn't create real or potential conflicts of interest," said spokesman Phil Kelly, whose wife is among the company's more than 2,300 employees.

Citicorp's hiring process has a lot of checks and balances. Interviews are conducted by more than one person and the interviewers are highly trained, he said.

"It's a process that would be hard to abuse," he said.

Washington County Hospital doesn't permit relatives to work in the same department, although sometimes exceptions are made in the 2,200-member workforce, said Brooks McBurney, vice president of personnel services for the hospital.

Because the hospital is a 24-hour operation, it would be possible for two relatives to work in the same department on different shifts and never see each other.

"It's ratcheted up a notch if you're in management," he said.

Often, it is not practical for large companies to ban the hiring of relatives, personnel directors said.

"This is a small town and so it may be a little more difficult than if you were in a metropolitan area to absolutely ensure there's no perception of influence," McBurney said.

Allegheny Power has a detailed family employment policy to cover its 400 employees in Washington County, said spokeswoman Debbie Beck.

"They are treated fairly but not given preferential treatment," she said.

Small businesses are less likely to have anti-nepotism policies, said Kim Wines, administrator at Smith Elliott Kearns & Co., who writes about ten personnel policies a year for clients of the Hagerstown accounting company.

"The culture of our community is closely-held, family-owned businesses," Wines said.

Sometimes, that causes morale problems.

"Other employees feel there is favoritism," she said.

Goodwill Industries of Hagerstown has one of the most strict anti-nepotism policies for its 360 employees.

Goodwill avoids hiring close relatives like spouses, siblings, grandparents or in-laws, said spokesman Fred Nugent.

But there are always exceptions to the rule.

"If you've got a family that's down and out, it may be appropriate for an individual to need help from Goodwill," Nugent said.

The city of Hagerstown, which employs about 430 people, has no formal anti-nepotism policy, said Personnel Director Eric Marburger.

Issues about family members are resolved on a case-by-case basis.

"Just because someone has the same last name doesn't mean they should be scrutinized harder," he said.

However, the city is aiming for a level playing field.

"A relative of an applicant should never be in a position to be involved in the hiring," he said.

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