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4 NEPOTISM IN SLOVAKIA STILL DISTORTS JOB MARKET

Blood: Thicker than job qualifications

Jana is 21 and secretary to the general director of a state-owned company in eastern Slovakia's Rožňava. In landing her job she didn't have to work her way through tough interviews, nor did she have to compete with any other candidates. Jana's aunt, who has worked for the company for over 20 years, "managed" the position for her niece by "saying a few good words about her".
Nepotism, the practice of a person using his or her public power to obtain a favour - very often a job - for his or her family, in Slovakia carries the name rodinkárstvo (derived from the Slovak word rodina meaning 'family', it is loosely translated as 'familyhood').
While many foreigners still express shock at meeting nepotism so frequently in business, for the majority of Slovaks it is still, as Jana's aunt says, "a normal thing".

Jana is 21 and secretary to the general director of a state-owned company in eastern Slovakia's Rožňava. In landing her job she didn't have to work her way through tough interviews, nor did she have to compete with any other candidates. Jana's aunt, who has worked for the company for over 20 years, "managed" the position for her niece by "saying a few good words about her".

Nepotism, the practice of a person using his or her public power to obtain a favour - very often a job - for his or her family, in Slovakia carries the name rodinkárstvo (derived from the Slovak word rodina meaning 'family', it is loosely translated as 'familyhood').

While many foreigners still express shock at meeting nepotism so frequently in business, for the majority of Slovaks it is still, as Jana's aunt says, "a normal thing".

"Who else should I help if not my close family?" she asks.

Indeed, according to sociologists and HR experts, few Slovaks understand that rodinkárstvo produces a conflict of interests, or perceive it as a form of corruption akin to cronyism (again, a practice where preference is given in professional matters, but to friends rather than family).

"I don't think it's correct to give preference to relatives, but I think in areas where there's high unemployment, people are more driven to act this way. I can understand that," said 29 year old Ján Benedik from Košice. The Košice region has one of the highest jobless rates in Slovakia at 26.87% as of the end of February 2001.

Benedik's opinion, say HR experts, is an example of the way employment was approached under Communism, an approach that continues to distort current values. Although the younger Slovak generation may now understand nepotism as a negative thing, the majority population still, experts believe, accepts and actively participates in nepotism.

"Society still has a deformed set of values as far as employment patterns go," said Ján Bunčák, sociologist with the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

"Rather than doing things according to the western standard of meritocracy [where a job candidate or employee's value is measured purely by his or her professional achievements - ed. note], Slovakia endured five decades when political and family membership principles were applied instead. This is still the reality of Slovakia.

"The trend of employing friends and family continues, even in more public posts," he said (see related article, page BF IV).

Emília Sičáková, head of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Slovakia (TIS), said that nepotism was frequently encountered in Slovakia because it was still considered a vital part of landing a job. "The practice of allowing the best workers to win jobs and promotions, started mainly by foreign firms, is still not widespread. People therefore think they have to rely on their closest friends and family [to move upwards in a career]", she said.

Even the western-influenced younger generation, Bunčák added, was not fully committed to meritocratic principles. "It will take more than 11 years [since the fall of Communism in Slovakia] to fix this," he predicted.

Problem being tackled

Mapping the full extent of nepotism in Slovakia is difficult because of the scarcity of data. According to a June 2000 World Bank survey on corruption in Slovakia, 19.4% of those polled thought that personnel decisions were influenced by family connections, while 34.6% thought they were dependent on political connections or affiliations. However, no definitive statistics are available on the extent of nepotism and cronyism in Slovakia.

This very lack of data, Bunčák said, was evidence of the widely-held belief among Slovaks that nepotism was not harmful, and "not worth deeper inspection".

Luboš Kováč, head of the international recruitment firm Lugera and Maklér, said his firm's experience of working for Slovak companies had almost made the firm abandon working for domestic businesses altogether.

"Very often, candidates are picked long before a job interview, especially with purely Slovak firms. International firms or smaller companies generally have higher standards than large socialist-type Slovak firms," he said, adding that the corporate culture that international firms bring with them includes checks and counter measures to prevent nepotism.

One firm which has started to root out problems with nepotism is the Slovak subsidiary of the Swedish firm AssiDomän.

"We are trying to rid our firm of this [nepotism]. But unfortunately, within it there are many remainders of this past practice," said Anton Vacko, HR director with AssiDomän Štúrovo in Slovakia. "When we advertise a new opening, we make sure that nepotism doesn't get a chance in the selection process."

He cited a recent example of the efforts his company has made to combat the practice, recounting that a wife of a production director at the firm had applied for a middle-management position. While she was qualified for the post, AssiDomän management persuaded both her and her husband that hiring her would set a poor example within the company. She was not taken on.

However, HR chiefs at international insurance giant Nationale Nederlanden take a slightly different view of the problem.

"We are not in favour of the practice, but we are not against it as a rule," said Marcela Slimáková, HR Coordinator at the firm. "Everything comes down to the qualities of the candidate. We monitor the relationships between employees and candidates, and at job interviews we also ask the candidates whether he or she knows someone in Nationale Nederlanden."

Slovak law has no regulations on nepotism, written rules prohibiting the hiring of close relatives without proper competition at job interviews being absent from the Labour Code.

According to Jarmila Pagáčová, HR director with the National Labour Office (NÚP), the Slovak labour market follows an unwritten rule that "the closest family relatives [mother, father, children] cannot hold a work position that is directly subordinate to that of another family member". She added, though, that "it is completely up to each company whether it follows this rule or not".

"This principle is generally adhered to, but it's not legally binding," she said, adding that as it was a matter of "unwritten ethics" to respect the principle, the final decision on employing relatives remained in the hands of each company's HR decision makers.

This lack of pertinent legislation, coupled with general acceptance of the practice, is perpetuating a damaging problem, Šicáková says.

"Perhaps not all people who have come into their jobs through family connections lack the required qualifications for a particular position," she said. "But it's very damaging to overall corporate standards and internal company environments to keep such practices alive."

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