Of Advertised Roles, Recruitment by Referral, and the Perception Problem

Of Advertised Roles, Recruitment by Referral, and the Perception Problem

By Obinna Ejide

I know two young men, Peter and Paul (not real names). Peter spent many hours in many months preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). He attempted the exam thrice before getting a score competitive for consideration into a fully-funded PhD programme abroad. He also submitted applications to over 10 schools worldwide before he was finally awarded a scholarship to a university in the US.

But Paul? Paul was in the comfort of his office in a high-brow street in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, when his former lecturer on Postdoc in the US mailed him, referring him to a fully-funded Masters and PhD programme in one of US’ finest universities. He would later recommend Paul for the programme, too. Paul had not sat for the GRE; he would later take one month break to prepare for the exam and ace it with a high score at the first attempt. But one application and—jackpot! He was offered a provisional admission. Remember Peter and Paul.

Life is not fair, is it? No. But that is not the issue.

Perhaps the above story is what plays out in some recruitment systems. Openings for roles are advertised in the media, members of the team requesting staff reach out to their first degree connections, asking for referrals, and perhaps one or several referrals are interviewed and a candidate amongst the referrals is selected for the role, right? Your thoughts echo mine. Do recruiters like this recruitment technique? I think they do, because it saves them time and other resources. Do the hires from such recruitment method do well in their assigned roles? That does not bother me now, because I feel that is not the right question. The right question now, I think, should be, is such a recruitment method free and fair?

Just as in an election, where those who are entitled to vote have the right to vote and are free to make their choice candidate(s), likewise, employers do have the right to pick whichever candidate(s) they deem fit for vacant roles. On the other side of the table, it is interesting to know that, as with candidates in an election, too, it is only fair that all candidates have equal rights (opportunities) to be selected. So, a 2:1 candidate without “connection” should stand the same chance of securing a job for an advertised role as another [candidate] with similar qualification whose friend or relative is a staff in the organization open for applications. Yes? What does Nigerian labour law say?

Let me say first, that Nigerian labour laws need to be revised and given due consideration when dealing with stakeholders in a recruitment process, but a peek at Part 1 of the Nigerian Labour Act Chapter 198, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990, throws a light on what is expected of a recruitment process:

“24. (1) If any person is desirous of recruiting-

(a) for himself or any other person; or

(b) for any association of employers; or

(c) for a public authority; or

(d) for the government of any country outside Nigeria, the services of any citizen as a worker in Nigeria or elsewhere, he may apply in writing to the Minister giving the particulars specified in subsection (2) of this section.


(2) The particulars referred to in subsection (1) of this section are-

(a) the number of workers required;

(b) the place where the work is to be performed;

(c) the nature of the work;

(d) the wages to be paid;

(e) the duration of the proposed contract; and

(f) whether or not it is desired to obtain the workers through a recruiter.

My question is: given its clandestine nature, is recruitment via referral a transparent one? I think recruitment via referral that satisfies the extant labour laws given above would be adjured transparent, because the law is silent on the communication of the open role(s) to the public. Only the Minister, I see here, is required to be advised about the recruitment.

Perhaps, there are other laws I am oblivious of: update me if necessary.

The law itself suggests that tax evasion may be one of the reasons many companies do make their recruitments secret in that manner. But beside this “cost-benefit”, what other advantage do they gain? I hope you have not forgotten about my friends, Peter and Paul, already. Paul, the “lucky guy”, had a strong academic performance and aptitude for learning. In fact, he graduated tops in his class during his undergraduate studies. He had, at that time, too, participated in inter-university competitions, and was also awarded a scholarship for undergraduates by a multinational company.

I won’t fail to mention, too, that he also kept in touch with his seniors, including his former lecturer on Postdoc in the US, telling them about his interest in pursuing a postgraduate program away (perhaps, one would say we have found that missing “connection” link, yes?). But that is not the point; the point is this: there was already an evidence of success hoped for in the role of the postgraduate student desired by the university before a formal consideration was made. You see, referral, on the part of the referrer, comes with an additional risk: the risk that your candidate would not perform as well as expected, which would raise questions about your sense of judgement or motive as a staff or, perhaps, an aspiring leader, for referring the candidate—because it is expected that you should tell, from the onset, whether your candidate is a good fit for a role.

Call it Reputational Risk. Beyond knowing Paul as that young man who was interested in a postgraduate program away, Paul’s former lecturer knew his abilities to perform on the given role. The risk increases when you single-source the role; this method of recruitment is often characterized in roles that involve highly-technical job responsibilities to be delivered over a specified period of time.

So, recruitment via referral—the candidate just has to be perfect to make it right. That is what recruitment via referral is or, at least, should be. The other option is to take a chance on an unknown candidate out there and believe he/she is worth the risk.

But the advantage of recruitment advertised with no need for referral letters required from the onset is not [only] that every qualified person stands an equal chance of getting selected, [because the cognitive bias of the recruiter may still annul the equality effect that such open recruitment would have dressed the recruitment process]; for instance, I have heard a recruiter in the management consulting space say she does not like hiring bankers for new roles because, more often than not, the new (former banker) hires revert back to their former profession after a short while.

This should bother us, and I also think fact checks need to be made on such claim. But lest I digress—an advantage of an advertised recruitment without request for referrals, I believe, is that it creates more choices for people to take chances on. A young man/woman who is in a remote village somewhere in Nigeria can dream of settling down in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Enugu or Kano simply because a firm advertised their recruitment online. Peter was able to dream of flying over many rivers and seas to pursue an international degree simply because openings for a postgraduate role in a far-away land were advertised. It took him 10 attempts, you may say, but that one jackpot in a thousand trials is an attestation that advertised openings are not surreal real, that everything is not by “connection”.

But if every job seeker is encouraged to adapt to what some see as the “changing nature of recruitment”, and organizations react and take their flirtation of recruitment via referral beyond romance, and make a stronger commitment to it by embedding it in the core of their recruitment strategy, in Nigeria, I foresee a future where there would be a rise in the number of qualified but unemployed graduates, and dearth of professionals in the various sectors of the economy due to the singular reason of perception management. I mean, a massive flux of talents to abroad would be witnessed because there would be a perception problem that “there are no opportunities within until you know someone”, even when the opportunities may be present. And it would become a huge cost to bring home Nigerian professionals abroad—and I refer to these expatriates as “the black neo-colonials”—when such is the situation.

For a sustainable development in recruiting, this is the time for organizations to do a forecast of the cost-benefit analysis of both recruitment methods to predict their future impact in societies.

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