Who’s got your back?

Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised when trying out a new service professional— whether it’s a plumber, dentist, teacher, web developer, or new printer. We’ve also probably all been burned at least once when going to someone new. Naturally, we ask for referrals from our friends or go to people we know. It may become a matter of “who we know” rather than “what they know.”

Cronyism is defined as favoritism shown to friends and associates by hiring them for positions or awarding them contracts without regard for their qualifications. When I was doing research on this topic a colleague of mine told me a story about having to testify in court in a case involving cronyism and kickbacks. Early in her career she was working as a freelance graphic designer creating brochures, presentation materials, and other marketing collateral. She was a sole proprietor and luckily for her probably too small to be approached for a kickback. However, she was in a position to witness how the larger media and printing contracts were being awarded—and it was often to the agency or organization that “kicked back” some of the profit to the client. In this case the individual at the top of the chain was found guilty and served jail time. My colleague said that although having to testify in court was unusual, the practice of kickbacks in the industry is not. There is also a kinder and gentler term for kickbacks—referral fee—the practice of giving a percentage of the project costs or profit to the individual or organization referring them.

Cronyism also happens when information about budgets and competitor bids are shared. The process of submitting a proposal that includes budget information is standard practice in graphic design. During the bidding process Information about the client’s budget and what the competitor bids is information that is not meant to be shared—when it is cronyism is the result.

In her article for Communication Arts, “Where Our Wild Things Are—Part 2,” DK Holland discusses the transformation of graphic design from the 1960s and 70s, when it was primarily a “boys club” whose members were elite design icons like Milton Glaser and Herb Lubalin, to today’s environment where crowdsourcing has created a global marketplace for graphic design. Ironically, the de-emphasis on qualifications or education in crowdsourcing appears to be in direct contrast to cronyism and many feel it has created an environment where graphic design is undervalued.

So back to being burned and who’s got your back. Clients feel much safer and less at risk working with someone they know and trust—and why not, who wants to take a chance on the unknown when time and money are involved. Graphic designer, educator, and author Gunnar Swanson feels decisions about whom to work with should be based on a rational measure of trustworthiness. Recommendations from someone you have reason to trust because of their knowledge in the field are a rational measure of trustworthiness. On the other hand, membership in the same social club or graduation from the same school may be a less rational measure.

How do you feel about cronyism? Do you make decisions about who to work with rational measurements? Or is it a matter of “who you know” vs. “what you know”?

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