Wasta or wasata (Arabic: وَاسِطة wāsiṭah), is an Arabic word that loosely translates into nepotism, favoritism, or 'who you know'. Yes, there’s actually a Wikipedia article, in English. In other Wiki words, Wasta is an attempt to use the influence of relatives or acquaintances to achieve certain objectives.
No need to look for its translation though as the word Wasta is used as it is in academic research, as per Dr. Elizabeth SFEIR, Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Business Administration and Head of Department – Management, who has dedicated her PhD Thesis to it. Her eyes sparkle when the word is mentioned, considering the time she has invested in developing a comprehensive study on the matter, the pros and cons, and suggesting a model that can help the recruiters and actually turn the Wasta into a positive concept.
Although the word seems to refer to a local and cultural thing amongst us Lebanese people, it has its various equivalents around the world: “Guanxi” in Chinese, “Blat” in Russian and so on. Indeed, favors seem to be needed quite everywhere around the globe; to each its roots.
In Lebanon, Wasta goes back to the villagers who used to rely on the ra’iis el baladiyyeh, the beik or the sheikh’s help in order to get something done, whether quickly or better or ahead of others. It’s obviously a cultural thing, but we can also blame the country’s rough political and economical years which surely made it harder for an average Lebanese citizen to make an honest living and protect his/her rights.
This word is pretty popular in the Lebanese vocabulary, for not so cheerful reasons usually. Dr Sfeir expresses her sadness to hear some students use the word as soon as they talk about their post-graduation plans and how their hopes to find a job relate to their chances of having a Wasta. She also feels very disappointed when students with poor academic performance get hired while excelling ones stay at home waiting to start their career.
Wasta’s harmful effects naturally expend in the workplace where most coworkers feel unmotivated and dissatisfied when one of their team got his job thanks to a person of power in the company. It was evident when Dr. Sfeir interviewed 20 employees part of her research, only to find that and merely 2 employees seemed unaffected by it. It also creates gossip and tension within a team which results into a bad performance and lack of dedication to their job duties; this behavior is quite justified when studies show that 1 out of 2 employees are hired out of wasta in Lebanon and job benefits are offered accordingly – raise, promotion and other. Quite alarming! Isn’t it?
However, favoritism can truly be a positive thing if used responsibly: this is what Dr. Sfeir would like to focus on through her study: she explains that when used wisely, it helps one create a network, expose his/her professional profile and allows qualified candidates to reach their dream jobs faster than the traditional way. But what does wisely truly mean? Dr. Sfeir developed a model, which she hopes to publish soon, on how to use Wasta correctly in the workplace; amongst the requirements are: use it clearly and kindly; follow specific standards and procedures; and give strategic power to the HR department who has a crucial role is recruiting the most qualified candidate for the job.
Sadly, the Lebanese labor laws have not been updated since 1943, except for a few amendments; which leave room for a lot of reforms, introducing new standards, new policies and new procedures, thus improving the hiring systems in the country.