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How does the federal government guard against nepotism?

On Behalf of | Dec 19, 2022 | Federal Employment Law

It’s never fun to go through the work of applying for a job or promotion only to learn you didn’t get the job. It’s even less fun to learn that the person who did get the job was related to someone else in the agency. But nepotism isn’t just demoralizing. It’s also illegal.

As the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) notes, there are both criminal and administrative laws against nepotism. This is because nepotism runs directly against the very idea of a merit-based federal workforce. So, how do agencies guard against nepotism, and how can applicants respond?

Agencies are supposed to police themselves

The MSPB points out that nepotism impacts every agency, although to varying degrees. In what may be the most recent data available, the MSPB pointed to the results of a government-wide 2010 survey. Respondents said they’d witnessed nepotism in every federal agency:

  • Only 3.4% of respondents said they’d witnessed nepotism within the agency with the best score
  • A staggering 15.9% (or one in six respondents) claimed they’d witnessed nepotism within the agency with the worst score

Here, the MSPB acknowledges that nepotism presents a direct threat to a merit-based government. It lowers morale, detracts from recruitment and lowers public trust in the government as a whole.

Despite this, the law entrusts federal agencies to police themselves. Per 5 U.S.C. § 2302(c), each agency is responsible to prevent its employees from engaging in prohibited personnel practices (PPP). The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) doesn’t directly oversee agency hiring practices, but it offers guidance. It also supplies form OP-306, an optional Declaration for Federal Employment, which asks applicants if they are related to existing agency members.

Finally, Inspectors General continue to investigate complaints of nepotism. The MSPB notes that, despite the laws against nepotism, investigations continue to turn up problems among high-ranking officials and HR staff. These people should know better.

The problem isn’t always clear

The first problem with having agencies police themselves is that they don’t always do a very good job of it. They often need a push from someone on the outside. Otherwise, they might find it easier to ignore their bad habits than to change them.

This problem might be further exacerbated by special circumstances. One example is the Schedule B authority that allows employees in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to help recruit Special Agents.

Naturally, ATF employees tend to recruit the people closest to them, such as their friends and family. The Schedule B authorization may prevent such recruitment from running afoul of the law, but the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) worries the ATF is operating without clear guidelines. For instance, the OIG points out that certain recommendations can potentially violate the Standards of Ethical Conduct.

What can applicants do?

Unfortunately, external applicants may never know if the job goes to someone’s family member. But internal applicants might be in a better position to uncover nepotism and report wrongdoing. Depending on the specifics, such hiring could be a crime or an administrative violation. Of course, there are also exceptions where agencies might fill certain positions with the relatives of other employees.

You won’t necessarily know the circumstances before you, but you can report your concerns to the Inspector General. By working with an experienced attorney, you can also protect yourself from any potential retaliation.


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