U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Judging from two dozen-or-so calls and emails we’ve received in the last week, state workers feel the same way about cronyism where they work.
Their comments were prompted by our report last week that the State Personnel Board ruled that officials at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing knowingly promoted an employee – twice – into positions for which she wasn’t qualified.
The typical call/email went like this: “I read that story and I thought, ‘That’s just like (new employee’s name), who got hired by (manager’s name) to be a (state job) even though (he/she) lacked (minimum qualification). Everybody knows it.”
We thought, like Potter and pornography, that we had a handle on what constitutes favoritism in state hirings and promotions. After reporting the Endsley case, however, we realized that it’s a more complex issue. Some lessons learned:
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Accidents happen. State law provides for both “good faith” and “bad faith” hiring and promotions of unqualified people. Why? Because the rules for what constitutes a “qualified” candidate can be extremely complex. Look at SPB Hearing Officer Richard Silva’s explanation of why Endsley wasn’t qualified for her promotions. It’s an excruciatingly detailed daisy chain of logic that lays out two or three “paths” to the promotions.
Given the complexity of the rules and how they might be interpreted, you can believe that accidents sometimes occur.
Aggrieved employees aren’t objective. Many complaints we heard have come from angry folks who were passed up for a job. They may be right, but their personal stake in the alleged cronyism dings their objectivity. That’s not to say they’re discredited, but the word of a third party (such as the concerned DFEH personnel staff who rightly objected to Endsley’s promotion) carries more immediate weight.
As one emailer wrote, “ Policies are only as good as the people who uphold them.” What looks like favorable treatment to an employee can be rationalized by a manager as a deserved reward for good performance. Hiring a skilled former coworker might be cronyism under guise of hiring the “best candidate.“ One person’s “pornography” is another person’s First Amendment expression of “art.”
Favoritism can be rationalized away by its practitioner or conjured up by a disgruntled employee who didn’t get a job. That’s why the state has a board that watchdogs the merit system, an authority that calls out favoritism when it sees it.