Social mobility tsar in hot water over nepotism

In the family: James Caan’s daughter (right) is employed by three of his companies © Getty Images

Yesterday Dragons’ Den star James Caan launched a government initiative to make employment practices more open and fair. So is it hypocritical of him to employ his own daughters?

James Caan was two years old when his family moved from Pakistan to London’s East End. They established a clothes shop, which Caan was expected to join when he left school at 16 – but his ambitions were bigger.

He quarrelled with his father, left the family home and worked at recruitment companies until he had gathered the experience to found a business of his own. Today the Dragons’ Den star is worth £65 million and acts as an adviser to the government on social mobility.

Caan is the model of a self-made man. So it was no surprise this week when he made headlines by calling on parents to deny their offspring help finding work. ‘Let the child stand on his own two feet,’ he said. ‘You don’t want them to feel as if they don’t have to make an effort.’

But yesterday morning, as Caan prepared to join Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in launching a drive for fair recruitment, he awoke to accusations of hypocrisy and nepotism: among the staff at Caan’s companies were two of his own daughters.

Caan insisted that he had given them no special treatment and that they were qualified for the roles they filled. And after all, family connections have been the commonest way into employment throughout history, when fathers would teach sons a craft or apprentice them to a neighbour. Many celebrated figures have been a product of nepotism, from John F Kennedy to Mozart.

So why is it a dirty word? Because if employers hand out the most desirable jobs based on a personal acquaintance, privilege is rewarded instead of merit.

Last week, when Clegg’s old school Westminster held an auction for internships, the Liberal Democrat leader criticised the scheme on just those grounds. Jobs should be available to ‘talented young people from all backgrounds,’ he said, ‘not just those who have the right connections.’

This is a real social issue. In Britain, for instance, parents’ status predicts future earnings as well as education. And a recent survey in Canada showed that 68% of the sons of the top 1% of earners had worked in the family business.

Family matters

This strikes most people as grotesquely unfair: why should well-connected youths get a leg up, they ask, while millions of talented and driven people are stuck at the bottom rung? Nobody should hire an employee before an open, unbiased competition based purely on ability.

But society, some say, is built on the social bonds of friendship and family, and it’s human nature to help the people we love. If we remove personal feelings from the labour market and replace them with raw competition – even in the name of fairness – the working world will be a colder, crueller place.

You Decide

  1. Would you have any moral problem with working for a company run by a relative?
  2. ‘Anything a parent does out of love for their child is natural and justifiable.’ Do you agree?


  1. Get into pairs and conduct a mock interview for a job of your choosing. Then give one another feedback on how it went.
  2. Write a short story set in a world where everybody is rewarded exactly according to their abilities. Is everything about the world good?

Some People Say...

“Don’t ever take sides against the family. Ever.’ Al Pacino in ‘The Godfather”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean it’s wrong to work for someone I know?
There are many varying degrees of nepotism, and plenty of blurred lines which it’s up to you to navigate. If you’ve worked hard, it’s not always bad to get a job from someone you know. But for your own self worth and development as well as for ethical reasons, it’s important to feel that you have earned your success.
If I want to get a career in a competitive field like publishing, do I need to make contacts?
Unfortunately, good connections do matter in many industries. But many companies of every kind are making real efforts to develop a more open and fair application process, so don’t be disheartened: if you’re highly skilled and determined, it really is possible to get the career you want.

Word Watch

Dragons’ Den
A TV programme in which aspiring entrepreneurs present their ideas to a team of successful businessmen. The best ideas are rewarded with investment from these ‘Dragons’.
Favouring family members. In Medieval Europe, bishops would often bequeath their riches or even their position in the Church to a ‘nephew’ (usually in fact an illegitimate son). The Latin for nephew is ‘nepos’ – hence nepotism.
John F Kennedy
US President from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. JFK was from an elite dynasty of American politicians in the Democratic Party who were often referred to as ‘America’s royal family’. He is one of the country’s most revered leaders.
The great classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart learned his trade as a very young child at the hands of his father Leopold, who was himself a prestigious composer.
One of of the most well-known and academically successful private schools in Britain.

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