Favoritism and Friendship

23:23 Wed 18 Apr 2007. Updated: 20:13 13 May 2007
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Where do the two blur into each other? Where does helping your friends become corrupt cronyism?

I’ve been reading about Paul Wolfowitz’s girlfriend problem. Essentially he got her an outrageously high salary at the World Bank (a salary which is incidentally tax-free). Clearly this is cronyism. But is there a hard line separating that kind of behavior from, for example, encouraging the company you work for to interview friends for positions?

Or from influencing the company to hire that person?

The concept of fairness is clearly close to the heart of this problem. In certain respects, it could be seen as unfair if two equally-qualified candidates for some position were separated in the end by the fact that one of them knew the hiring manager, because that friendship is outside the bounds of what we normally consider “meritocratic”. But if the candidates are really equally-qualified, then a decision on the basis of friendship isn’t significantly more unfair than one decided by luck. Problems begin to arise along a continuum of how much merit-based disadvantage is overcome by the friendship factor.

Another aspect is how much power the people involved have. If your workplace follows your suggestion about who to hire because they think it’s a valid viewpoint, that’s one thing. If they follow your suggestion because you essentially have the power to enforce it, or to punish people for not following it, or reward them for doing so, then you are in a position where cronyism is much easier to practice.

This seems like it’s turning into the Spider-Man “with great power comes great responsibility” line—but while that’s a comic-book cliché, it would be nice if in reality that responsibility were exercised a lot more often… again using Wolfowitz as an example (which seems warranted, as the situation is quite similar to lots of other scandals), one gets the impression that there’s a powerful sense of entitlement at work there, one not easily dented. This reminds me of the fact that the incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent—similarly, those who are convinced that they’re entitled don’t realize that there are equally- or more-qualified other people out there who are just as “deserving” as they are, if not more deserving.

It seems to me that power should be wielded without a sense of entitlement. Whenever that sense of entitlement arises, that is likely the tiny root of corruption.

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