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Service nepotism in the multi-ethnic marketplace: mentalities and motivations

David Sarpong (Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, Bristol)
Mairi Maclean (Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)

International Marketing Review

ISSN: 0265-1335

Article publication date: 13 April 2015




The purpose of this paper is to emphasize the multi-ethnic marketplace as the site of the emergence of service nepotism: the practice where employees bestow relational benefits and/or gifts on customers on the basis that they share a perceived common socio-collective identity. The authors draw on the contemporary turn to practice in social theory to explore why ethnic employees may engage in service nepotism even when they are aware that it contravenes organizational policy.


Given the paucity of empirical research which investigates the multi-ethnic marketplace as a locus for the emergence of service nepotism, the authors adopted an exploratory qualitative research approach to advance insight into service nepotism. The study benefits from its empirical focus on West African migrants in the UK who represent a distinct minority group living in urban areas of the developed world. Data for the study were collected over a six-month period, utilizing semi-structured interviews as the primary method of data collection.


The research highlights the occurrence and complexities of service nepotism in the multi-ethnic marketplace, and identifies four distinct activities (marginal revolution, reciprocal altruism, pandering for recognition, and horizontal comradeship), that motivate ethnic employees to engage in service nepotism, despite their awareness that this conflicts with organizational policy.

Research limitations/implications

By virtue of the chosen theoretical lens, the authors were unable to demonstrate how service nepotism could be observed outside spoken language. Also, care should be taken in generalizing the findings from this study given the particularities of the sub-group involved. For example, since the study is based on a small sample of first generation migrants, the findings may not hold true for their offspring, whose socialization and marketplace experiences may be qualitatively different from those of their parents.

Practical implications

Service nepotism challenges fundamental western egalitarian ideals in the multi-ethnic marketplace. Organizations may wish to develop strategies to placate observers’ concerns of creeping favouritism in a supposedly equitable marketplace. The research could also serve as a starting point for managers objectively to assess the likely impact of service nepotism on the organizing value systems and competitiveness. In particular, the authors suggest that international marketing managers would do well to look beneath the surface to see what is really going on in international marketplaces, since ostensible experiences of marketplace consumption may not always reflect underlying reality.


By using service nepotism as an analytical category to explore the marketplace experiences of ethnic service employees living and working in industrialized societies, the research shows that the practice of service nepotism, whilst taken for granted, can have far-reaching impact on individuals, observers, and service organizations in an increasingly highly differentiated multi-ethnic society.



Sarpong, D. and Maclean, M. (2015), "Service nepotism in the multi-ethnic marketplace: mentalities and motivations", International Marketing Review, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp. 160-180.



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