Is it who you know or what you know?

Two weeks ago on the steps of Downing Street the new Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, stated that she was would fight “the burning injustice” that prevents less affluent children from “reaching the top professions”.

Social mobility has been an enduring goal for Prime Ministers. Yet, despite considerable improvements in the education system, intergenerational social mobility - which is usually measured by analysing the 1958 National Child Development Study and the 1970 British Cohort Study - has remained stubbornly static. This has caused some people to ask whether social mobility is being constrained by factors outside the education system. Some cite the issue of nepotism. Nepotism refers to the practice among those with power or influence of favouring friends or relatives, especially in job applications or promotions.

Does nepotism affect social mobility?

Children of wealthy parents are much more likely to gain jobs with high status and high pay. In 2014, a Child Poverty Commission Report found that 71% of senior judges, 53% of diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs and 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List attended fee-paying private schools despite only 7% of the general public attending such schools. However, whether this overrepresentation is caused by parental contacts or by other benefits that wealth confers is unclear.

Nepotism is inherently difficult to measure. If it takes place then it takes place behind closed doors, away from the glare of public scrutiny. For example, the former Prime Minister, the Rt David Cameron MP, often highlighted as a member of the so-called ‘old boys’ network’, has been accused of gaining his first job in politics only after his future employer, the late Tim Rathbone MP, received a call from Buckingham Palace. The call had apparently been placed on the instruction of Cameron’s father. Regardless of the veracity of this story, it shows the hidden means by which nepotism might operate.

There is some evidence - from polling - that finds nepotism is occurring. A survey conducted on behalf of the Social Mobility Commission found that two-thirds of respondents believe that family connections were more important than “what you know”.  Polls have also shown that people have utilised parental contacts in gaining jobs. A Debrett's survey of adults aged 18 to 25 found that four in 10 had used family connections to get a job. This rose to 72% among people from “privileged” backgrounds. Similarly, a YouGov survey found that 8% of individuals cited their family connections as the main reason they gained a job, but this rose to 14% for people in the ABC1 class group - broadly, the ‘middle classes’.

A survey by Survation also found that many workers have witnessed nepotism in promotions. The poll found that 61% of employees had first-hand experience of nepotism in the workplace. The most common experience cited was seeing a relative of a colleague receive preferential treatment (37%) and witnessing a relative of a colleague get a job they were not qualified for (28%). Respondents also witnessed relatives of colleagues were getting away with things that others would be disciplined for (22%).

How to prevent nepotism?

Preventing nepotism is probably even more difficult than measuring it.

Some critics of nepotism have focussed on the issue of internships; critics argue that the children of privileged parents often gain the most prestigious internships or periods of work experience. For instance, the former Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, has stated that using parental connections to gain internships was wrong and should be prevented.

Some have suggested that employers should be forced to pay interns. They argue that only people from privileged backgrounds are able to undertake unpaid internships by relying on money from their parents. However, others have argued that this would have little effect on nepotism since parental connections could assist securing a paid position as well as an unpaid one. Moreover, there is concern that banning unpaid internships may simply conceal them from view. That is, unpaid periods of internship style work would still exist but would not be advertised. This may cause nepotism to become more prevalent. Furthermore, evidence seems to suggest that young people find unpaid internships to be a valuable experience if they are high quality.

In the face of these criticisms, it has been suggested that the best mechanism of preventing nepotism in the work experience and internship system is by encouraging companies to be more transparent in their hiring systems. For instance, Clegg and others have argued that companies should advertise their internships to schools and clearly on the internet, and that companies should consider a name-blind application process for internships and periods of work experience. Clegg also advocated an internship charter to produce standards and transparent rules.

There have also been calls to prevent nepotism in the public sector, particularly in high-status political jobs. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) is currently considering banning Members of Parliament from hiring family members - which has been a longstanding topic of controversy with one in five MPs employing a family member. The Scottish Parliament enacted a ban in 2009. The Civil Service code also have strict restrictions on the hiring of family members.


It seems very probable that nepotism occurs in Britain. However, the frequency with which it occurs is inherently difficult to measure. This makes it similarly difficult to determine whether it is a significant cause of inequality or a more benign occurrence. However, polling data seems to suggest it is relatively widespread. Policy solutions are equally complicated. Most policies focus on increasing transparency in the hiring process, and targeting public-sector jobs. Ending nepotism in the private sector without draconian laws is probably impossible and not necessarily desirable.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue