Who Will Companies Hire?

by Evil HR Lady on July 18, 2008

I have often been told that employers hire people they know to fill positions before they pick someone qualified for the position. Is this true? if so are there companies that prohibit the hiring of friends of friends and relatives of relatives?

Sure, lots of companies prohibit the hiring of relatives of current employees. I work in such a large company that this would be impractical, so we prohibit the hiring of relatives within the same department.

But friends? Honey, that’s called networking and it’s how the business world works. Unless the management is utterly incompetent (not saying such companies don’t exist), they still hire qualified people–just not you. (That’s what I’m getting out of your e-mail anyway. Why can’t I find a job? Forgive me if I’m wrong or jumping to unwarrented conclusions.)

Hiring is an unpleasant and risky activity. Even though I harp on here that most employment in the United States is “at-will,” meaning that a company can fire you for cause or no cause at any time, most companies don’t terminate people willy-nillly. They have processes and procedures and just because termination is technically legal, they have to be concerned about lawsuits. (Even if a company wins a lawsuit they still have to pay legal bills.) Not to mention, no actual work gets done while you are dealing with a bad hire.

Because hiring is so risky, if Bob is a fabulous employee and he comes to me and says, “Hey, I worked with Karen at my previous company. She has all the skills needed for this vacant position and she’s wonderful because of A, B, and C,” then of course I’m going to interview Karen.

Karen gets an automatic bump up because Bob (who I know) has personally worked with her and recommends her. This is smart hiring, and not something to be stopped. (Not saying that hiring managers should automatically hire people who come recommended, but rather that these people are more likely to be a good fit.)

Now, of course, if Bob’s reason for recommending Karen is “I understand I get a referral bonus if you hire her,” she won’t get that bump. “Hey, Karen was my college roommate, and dude, she’s awesome!” probably will get an eyeroll from me.

Karen still needs to be qualified for the job. But, to an outsider who is trying to crack through the company fortress it can look like we only hire people’s friends. This isn’t likely to be true, but it can seem that way.

So, you need to start meeting people and networking. You also need to do a fabulous job at whatever company you are at now. Your co-workers may one day be in a position to recommend you. And heck, you may be in a position to to recommend them. Of course, networking has it’s limitations. A recommendation from someone who worked with you for 5 years is going to pull a lot more weight than a recommendation from someone you exchanged business cards with at a mutual friend’s birthday party.

Now, there are some problems with hiring via employee referral. One is that employees tend to be friends with people like themselves–same age, race, gender, socio-economic status. Fine, fine, fine, but if you’ve got affirmative action goals recruiting this way can make you over-represented in whatever hiring group you started with. (I seem to recall a court case where a cleaning company got sued for discrimination because almost all the employees were Korean. The case hinged on whether they were legally hiring people they knew or illegally discriminating against people who weren’t Korean. I’d tell you how the case resolved, but that would involve either Googling (feasible)or going downstairs and pulling out my old constitutional law text book out and looking it up (ain’t gonna happen).)

So, if you are recruiting, you need to use many methods to source your candidates. Referrals are great, but shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of existence.

If you are looking for a job, keep on it. Talk to everyone you know. Don’t get angry and try not to get frustrated when it seems like you have to know someone to get a job. My first “real” job was at a company that was extremely difficult to get into. I didn’t realize this (I was new to the area) and applied because I had the right skill set. I got the job even though I didn’t know a soul in the company. People who had been recommended internally didn’t get the job because they lacked a critical skill that I had. (In this case, the ability to do statistical analysis. Few HR people have that skill, which is a topic for another day.)

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