C Gopinath

Ways and means of landing a job

C. GOPINATH | Updated on January 28, 2011


A common form of nepotism is one where a government official, using his implicit power, makes successful recommendations for recruitment.

It is a common belief among job seekers that you need to know someone to get a job. This is especially so when supply greatly exceeds demand, as it usually is for many low to mid-level positions. You either need to know someone working in the organisation, or at least someone who knows someone in the organisation. This is not an insinuation that the organisation is unfair or that one can bypass the announced requirements. A recommendation is often seen as a way of standing out from the whole pile of applications sitting in the hiring manager's inbox.

Making a recommendation or hiring on the basis of a recommendation may be unfair. This issue hit the headlines of a local paper in Boston because it was found that Mr John O'Brien, head of the Probation Department in the State of Massachusetts, was routinely recommending people and they were being hired.

An independent inquiry found pervasive fraud and corruption and recommended that he be fired. It turned out that most of those people hired were not only his relatives and friends, but also others recommended by influential legislators who controlled his budget.

O'Brien, of course, was overcome with consternation. “I recommend several people,” he said, “because of the position I occupy. I don't expect them all to be hired.” (He did not make any comment on the other charge that he was forcing subordinates to make campaign contributions, a sort of ‘pay-to-stay' plan, I guess.) The President of the Senate (upper chamber in the state legislature) joined in supporting him.

“Every member of the Legislature recommends people for positions,” she said. “That's part of what we do.” In a democracy, when a politician seeks help to get elected, he or she is also open to a line of supplicants who seek assistance in their personal matters.


What may be seen as nepotism by some can be seen as helping others in the community. In some cultures, a person who does not help his own people is even looked down upon! In India where most political parties are family businesses, will their administration be any different?

Similar problems arise in the corporate world. Organisations get so many applications for each position that they resort to using search keywords to select a short list. If your resume does not include those keywords, you have lost out right at the beginning.

That is when it is useful to have somebody inside who will send your resume to the hiring manager to ‘take a look'. Unlike including names as referees, a recommendation is an upfront deal. It is a post-it note that is stuck on top of your resume screaming ‘hire this person'!

When I used to work in the private sector, my Chairman would ask me if I knew somebody to fill a slot that was advertised and one for which the HR department was actively interviewing. His logic was that since I knew what the job entails, I would recommend the most suitable person. I, in turn, was careful in recommending only those I knew for sure would do a good job, for I did not want it known that I recommended a weak candidate, challenging my credibility. Some organisations even give a bonus to an employee if a person recommended is hired. If you are a member of the professional networking site, Linkedin.com, you may have been contacted by people in your network for recommendations that they can place on their page.

A new company, topprospect.com, tries to leverage the idea of recommendations as a way of identifying the right person for a job. Of course, there is a big difference between asking a credible person who knows your capabilities to recommend you versus one who doesn't know you.


It is a different world in the public sector. We expect higher standards in government, although believe that they are lower, and are shocked when we find out that it is true. If a government official makes a recommendation, the underlying presumption is that you better hire this person, otherwise the recommending official can make your life difficult. Then, we are crossing over from facilitation of hiring to corruption or nepotism.

Yet, I am reminded of the experience, many years ago, of a friend who was in government service and as head of a department, was hiring many people for a new project. He said he would regularly receive letters, (or ‘chits') from secretaries of other officials, ministers, members of legislatures, and so on, recommending particular candidates. He said he put them all in a draw and did not let it interfere with the hiring process, which was being handled by others working under him.

After the interviews, and selection, he compared the lists, and in those cases where the applicant hired had been recommended by someone, he would call that person up and convey the good news. Where the applicant was not hired, he would still call the one who recommended and explain that the candidate was not suitable. He explained to me that he knew the pressures that politicians and public servants come under, and they cannot refuse writing a recommendation, even in situations where they may not want to write one. Thus, my friend's system satisfied everyone except the unsuitable candidates!


I can easily see how this system is on a slippery slope and can be manipulated. Thus, if a my friend wanted to get into the good books of a particular minister, he would ensure that the person recommended was hired and, in turn, look for a quid pro quo, as John O'Brien did, by hiring people recommended by influential legislators who controlled his budget.

The solution cannot rest in more rules. Where does recommendation end, and nepotism or patronage begin rests, as always, with how the system is worked. There will be violators. The professionalism of the hiring manager needs to be the bulwark. Prohibiting the writing of recommendation letters would only result in an increase in phone calls! One can hope that even if a few of the weak ones slip by into the organisation, there are enough evaluation systems that will catch them out. When that does not happen, the organisation is in trouble.

(The author is Professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston, US. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

Published on January 16, 2011

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