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Recruiting the best (or the best friends)

17th Aug 2015
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Learning and development teams have always been concerned with how best to induct new people into the organisation.  It is a cornerstone of the L&D team’s role – to reduce time to competence and to ensure that new hires are up to speed and functioning as quickly as possible. Building teams and empowering people with different experiences and skills to work for the collective effort is one of the great joys of working in a people development function.

Recently, however, there are signs that we may need to give this exciting aspect of our roles a little less focus.  Last week, I was alerted to a report via social media, hailed as an example of how working socially is beneficial. In the report on the Forbes.com website  employee referrals were being endorsed as a route to finding new recruits. In research by global recruitment firm and ‘career community’ Glassdoor, those companies hiring via employee referrals – i.e. a recommendation by a current employee who knows someone looking for a job – work best,  with chums of the current workforce proving to be a ‘more successful job match’. If we can recruit people just like us, then there is presumably less requirement for induction, team building and all that tricky cultural acclimatisation stuff. 

This trend concerns me.  In the late 70s and early 80s, traditional manufacturing companies routinely had a ‘Lads of Dads’ recruitment policy. This was the practice of offering entry level jobs to the sons of the mostly male, shop floor workers  who were already employed in the company.  When sex and race discrimination legislation was introduced in the mid 70’s, these practices were considered discriminatory. Put simply, if you only recruit from the families of your existing (white) workforce, how do those from other backgrounds get a job?  ‘Lads of dads’ was, rightly, outlawed.  But how different is that practice from the recommendations to use employee referrals?

A number of technology companies use the employer referrals systems. All large firms in the USA have to publish an annual diversity report.  For the tech giants, these statistics do not reflect well. Apple, Google and Facebook employees are almost exclusively white and male – especially in the higher echelons of management.  Twitter – one of the companies most likely to use employee referrals as a route to employing people - employ just 49 black people amongst its almost 3,000 US based staff – around 1.5% of its workforce.  To put that in context, Twitter Head Office is in San Francisco, California – a state in which people of Hispanic origin now outnumber whites and 6% of the local population is African American.  At Amazon, there are three times more senior executives called Jeff than women or people of colour.  When employee referrals are used by these companies, the people recommended would seem to be just like the people who already work there – mostly pale and male.

(Amazon is a really interesting case in point.  The recent reports of the company’s somewhat outlandish personnel policies have sparked a backlash equal only to the outcry about its cavalier attitude to paying tax.  The reported workplace culture of aggressive competition and bullying are perhaps symptomatic of a management culture in which hierarchical position is assured due to an accident of birth rather than a track record of achievement.)

I find the monoculture of these firms deeply troubling.  The social problems which will follow a lack of diversity in these major companies seem inevitable. But this lack of diversity should also be a concern to those of us in L&D.  We are routinely charged with enabling business strategies which are intended to increase innovation and create competitive advantage through new products and new ways of providing services.  In the now infamous 2010 Learning to Change report into the state of the L&D industry, Capita’s John Harris reported that 82% of business leaders said that L&D strategy and delivery was not aligned with business strategy.  While not wishing to deflect criticism where it is obviously due, I would argue that sometimes, L&D would be hampered in driving an innovation strategy by having a talent pool drawn from only one group in society.  Furthermore, if leaders and managers are surrounded only by people who look and think the same way as they do, it may be easier to blame innovation or productivity gaps on the L&D team than to ensure that a greater breadth of talent is recruited in the first place.

Ultimately, I guess my disquiet comes down to the fact that the endorsement of employee referrals demonstrates a reluctance to face up to the challenges of creating exciting and highly capable teams from a diverse group of people.  Recruiting the people who are just like those whom we already employ seems to me to demonstrate a lack of both belief and ambition.  Working to build a disparate and diverse team into a close unit, working together productively, is great fun. Building a department which is strong because of its diversity, rather than despite it, is one of the reasons I love working in L&D. 

What is more, learning and capability strategies will only be taken seriously in organisations in which there is a clear route to advancement based on something other than being a member of the same country club or having been to the same school.  Any legitimisation of recruiting only people like us impoverishes our role, impoverishes our companies and ultimately impoverishes the society in which we live. 

Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete training: from recruitment to retirement. His new book: Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture is published by Kogan Page on September 3rd. Robin will be speaking at Learning Live on September 10th and Chairing the World of Learning Conference at the NEC on 29th and 30th September, 2015.

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