DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/21 January) – At fourteen, Sage is still used to being able to channel a parent with just the action of her fingertip. She texts without preamble, like we’re just picking up the thread to an interrupted conversation.

This came in last week while I was just sitting down for coffee.

Sage: What does nepotism mean?

Me: Nepotism means the practice by people in power to appoint or hire relatives who are not qualified for the job. It is a form of favoritism.

Sage: Love you, dictionary. So whom should we favor? An unqualified relative or an unqualified stranger?

Me: Favor the qualified one. It’s a job, not a political favor.

Sage: Huh?

Me: Because the dilemma is more remarkable in the political sphere, especially for jobs that are invested with public trust. Nepotism could extend to favoring friends over those more qualified. Or limiting the shortlist to friends and friends of friends. Like, PNoy is often under fire for appointing his KKK – kamag-anak, kaibigan, kabarilan.

Me: PNoy likes guns.

Sage: PNoy likes guns. He he he.

Sage: Seriously, ma. Whom?

Me: Well, if it’s a job and it’s not your money, professional values should dictate that you find the most qualified. You shouldn’t give the job to someone who does not know, does not care what it’s all about. You don’t hire people just because they need a job or an office to go to every morning.

Me: Jobs exist because there is a service to be delivered. So if you give the job to someone who knows nothing about what he needs to do in that position, how could he get it done?

Sage: How do you know he won’t get it done?

Me: Well, gee, because the first thing he does is paint the office, bring in the interior designers, buy a top-of-the-line computer before he can even think of what needs doing. He’ll never get around to it until he runs out of the budget at his disposal. Then he’ll say there’s no money to get the job done.

Me: Qualifications tell you that this person you are considering can do the job. Whether he does it or not, you’ll never know really. But your responsibility as the one in authority is to make sure that the people you put in place do know and can therefore get the job done.

Sage: Yeah, but isn’t nepotism kind of a general practice in the Philippines?

Me: It happens. So we impeach. It happens because we value relations and maybe also because we generally distrust the “other” (not family, not friend) who knows more than we do. Or they do, anyway. Never had a problem with people who know more than I do. I like learning from them, or watching them do what they’re good at. People who are really good at what they do are seldom insecure about sharing what they know.

Me: But there are people in authority who feel threatened to be shown up for their ignorance. They seem to think that relatives and friends have got their backs and won’t expose their incompetence. I guess people feel safe when surrounded by people they can trust to be loyal.

Me: Aside from education, there are other qualifications to consider: area of discipline (would he understand what the job requires), can he tell if a task is being done right? More importantly, can he correct it if it was done wrong?

Me: There are times when it’s true that there is nobody who meets the criteria. I teach “fake it till you make it” in cases like that. That means, if you’re not there yet, just act as if you already are there. Deliver what needs to be delivered. Learn how to get it done and don’t buy that excuse that you do not have experience, you’re new at the job, you did not know… Others may forgive you, but you shouldn’t forgive yourself. When you take the job, do your homework. Deliver.

Me: Live the role. Push yourself to do what is required. Ask those who know. Learn from your mistakes, but never justify your shortcomings. Just know what you did wrong and don’t do it again. You see, when people deliver on the job, they would have done justice to the trust given them. They would have earned their pay. Otherwise, it’s money for nothing, and that’s unjust.

Me: I would also say that if someone more qualified came along, you have to step back and make room for him to do it. Respect expertise. Say, you’ve been hired as a medic and there’s a medical emergency. A doctor shows up, he’s willing to take over, what do you do?

Sage: Wow. I just stopped to make space in my inbox and six messages came in from you!

Me: Can’t help it. Work ethics and professionalism are non-negotiable for mama. Our community, organizations, our country will not improve if the people we put in responsible positions do not know what is required of them and how to do it right.

Sage: If they looked the same on paper and you had to choose between a stranger and a relative that you know could at least fake it, what then?

Me: Sage, there are positions you hire for that need your personal trust and confidence, and nobody would question you if you appointed a relative there. And then, there are also positions that require independence and integrity such that the merest hint of influence on your part would taint the reputation of the appointee, as well as yours. Take Chief Justice Corona and GMA. He’s qualified, but there has always been that perception that she has undue influence over him. So some people can’t ever trust him not to take her personal interest into undue consideration. And he holds sway over the highest court in the land. That kind of power invested in a position scares people.

Sage: Hmm. The sentence is “They say Filipinos are prone to nepotism”. Would that be a half-truth then?

Me: Depends. Did they really say it? Hehe. Seriously, some positions require confidence and trust. Most others require transparency and public accountability. So, you put a relative there, you would look bad. For positions like that, a relative may have your full trust, but the public would always be left to think that it is your interest your relative serves, not theirs. You want that?

Sage: He says it’s because of lack of qualifications. And don’t most jobs require trust from the one who hires?

Me: By trust we mean trust that the job could get done, because people depend on that service being done. So qualifications at least assure you that he could get it done, if he wanted to. If he’s not qualified, getting it done is an iffy proposition. And done right? Can’t even think about it. Who are you reading?

Sage: Okay. Larry M. Henares, Jr. You know him?

Me: Ah. Vicky Belo’s ex-father-in-law. Crystal and Quark were fathered by Larry’s son, Atom. Hilarion, that’s his name.

Sage: Hilarion? LOL. Am reading We Are What We Think We Are. Found it in a textbook. I like it.

Me: Aha. Sounds familiar. See, I was just echoing him. Read his column on Bulletin Today without fail all through the grades. Over a Cup of Coffee. Read that one, definitely.

Sage: Your opinion of him?

Me: Never met him.

Sage: Your opinion of his writing?

Me: Keen observations, insightful analysis, sharp bordering on acerbic wit. Hilarious sometimes. Psyche shaper, definitely. I’d read him for a difficult word he used, look it up in the dictionary, and then make it a point to use that word in a sentence everyday for a week.

Sage: Mine is nepotism this week.

Me: You didn’t look it up in the dictionary.

Sage: You are my dictionary.

Me: Call me Goo-Gail, yeah.

Sage: Psyche shaper?

Me: Why else did I end up writing a column? Someday when I’m dead, what I wrote might show up in a textbook, too, and some kid would be asking their mother about a term I used. So, yeah. I had another one named Larry, too. Alcala.

Sage: I’ve heard of him.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)