Are we cherry-picking from the family tree when it comes to recruitment?


There’s a big disconnect between graduates and hirers on the prevalence of nepotism in recruitment, and HR must do more to strip out bias and promote clarity, says Peter Crush

Whether it’s the well-publicised desire of Richard Branson to prepare daughter Holly (currently chair of Virgin Unite), to eventually lead his empire, or the conspicuous installation of numerous family members into the Murdoch dynasty (although not always with success), it’s become an accepted, though controversial, practice that those at the top always have one eye on how the interests of their lineage will be maintained.

Nepotism in recruitment:

Graduates think nepotism trumps diversity in recruitment

Is nepotism ever a good thing?

Levelling the playing field - AI in recruitment - AI in recruitment

Whether it’s favouritism that sees scions of the Trumps, Forbes and Hiltons all rise to positions of importance ahead of their time (and some might say ability), CEO-succession has a long history of seeing long-standing loyal talent lose out to family flesh and blood.

But while many grudgingly accept nepotism is commonplace at the very highest echelons, there’s long been the assumption that at least at the entry level, the playing field is flatter; with new talent at least picked on potential to shine rather than the social circle they inhabit.

All is not right here it seems. The standout statistic from Milkround’s 2020-ending Beyond the Buzzword research reveals a savage assessment by grads of the recruitment process – 81% believe nepotism is alive and well in the distribution of first job offers. By comparison, only 6% of HR decision-makers admitted nepotism is a factor.

“We were certainly surprised at this very high proportion,” reflects Georgina Day, marketing manager for Milkround. “This was especially so given so many organisations have ever-more robust recruitment strategies to ensure candidates are selected regardless of background or who they know.”

So what’s behind this near-universal view? Is there something going on, or – and perhaps more worryingly – are the efforts by HR departments simply not getting through?

“While I’m surprised by the extent of this view, I do see students who still believe there’s an extent to hiring being all about ‘who you know’,” says Michelle Woods, resourcing manager at Grant Thornton. “In general, I feel growing employer emphasis on people’s extra-curricular activities – often well-minded, to put less emphasis on exam performance – means the impression it creates is that those with better networks and access to opportunities are more likely to be picked.”

UK resourcing lead at Aviva Rachel Glaze adds: “HRDs should rightly be worried that there is still this perception. What’s saddening is the extent to which this view seems so embedded – because I don’t really think it’s the case at all.”

Both Glaze and Woods believe there is almost certainly an additional of-the-moment aspect to these findings – pointing to increased competition for jobs in: Glaze says applications were up 40-50% last year. Meanwhile, Emma Pollard, Institute of Employment Studies principal research fellow, argues some
post-hoc rationalisation is inevitably in play as grads devise their own explanations for not getting through.

She adds: “What’s interesting though, is that I feel there is still a suspicion of nepotism because there are still differences between the way firms reach out, and then select.

"Firms might espouse diversity and an unbiased approach to selection, but they may still go to the same places to reach people, meaning grads from lower socio-economic backgrounds can still accuse them of not promoting opportunities to them.”

But while the recruiters HR magazine spoke to are adamant that nepotism is not an issue, Lee Jonson, director at consultancy Laws of Attraction (and formerly HRD at a number of FTSE 100 firms), is far more scathing: “I really don’t think much has changed at all,” he says.

“I recall having directors’ sons and daughters coming in all the time, and recruiters hiring them. It was driven by recruiters needing to find ways of whittling down 18,000-plus CVs for 400 positions, and also fear of upsetting the apple cart.

“I tried to fight against it, but it happened still because there is a disconnect between who HR and who the execs see as the future of the business.”

It’s a damning assessment that many will no doubt disagree with. Grant Thornton hires around 200-250 grads per year. Woods says its efforts to widen the firm’s talent pool mean it now takes 94-95% of its intake from non-Russell Group universities and non-selective schools.

She says: “It’s on the back of a lot of work looking at our processes, seeing where grads – particularly BAME ones – drop out in the process.

“We make more use of situational judgement tests, which gauge capability rather than reward experience gained.” Woods says the changes have resulted in 31% of grads coming now from ethnic minority backgrounds, with those from black heritages doubling in the last 12 months.

Similar successes exist elsewhere. James Gordanifer, EY’s head of student talent attraction and acquisition says: “We removed pure academic-only entry requirements back in 2015. This in itself opened up opportunities regardless of background. We have also adopted a CV-blind recruitment process, investing heavily in robust assessments and a data-led approach to recruiting.

“More recently, we have removed anything that indicates prior contacts, meaning there is no visibility to EY or a recruiter about whether a candidate is a relative of someone senior or a client. This means, everyone is judged on how they perform, not on who they know.”

But something must clearly still be remiss if grads have suspicions of foul play, and some believe that HR needs to take a good hard look at itself.

“If this [nepotism] is what grads truly think, then we clearly need to do more to improve the transparency of our processes, and give students assurances they need,” argues Louise Farrar, PwC’s director of student recruitment.

She says: “We have a three-stage process involving online games, pre-recorded video interviews and scenario tests that look at potential rather than learned experience, but it’s obvious from the data that the profession needs to better explain the layers we use, and that we’re not trying and trip people up.”

Glaze agrees, adding: “We talk to grads, and it’s still the case that many think a career with us wasn’t open to them because of who their parents are, or what their upbringing has been.

“We go to great pains to explain that we’ve actually removed the requirement for a 2:1 degree, or even a degree at all in some case, but outreach, and perceptions about social mobility must still be tackled.”

Moves made by Aviva saw its 2020 intake widen to 16 universities (typically it is around 10), and while it doesn’t yet have an outright ban on staff suggesting people they know apply, Glaze says that anyone applying does go through the same rigorous process.

But Stephen Isherwood, CEO of the Institute of Student Employers, says firms could definitely be doing more to shout about their chosen approaches. “The Milkround data certainly shows there is a need for recruiters to double-down on explaining what they do better.

“I remember working with EY about how it could help improve perceptions among disabled grads, and there was still fear among grads that completing certain information would see them screened out. Maybe recruiters need to very explicitly say how information is used, and why it’s needed, or not.”

What he’s in no doubt about though is that this is not a simple issue: “The headline might be nepotism, but beneath this, lies a complex subject,” he says.

“If firms are criticised for lack of outreach – does this prove nepotism, or does it simply show that some people come from backgrounds where they have lots of support and advice?” He adds: “There are issues at play here that employers can’t fix alone, but they can at least be clearer in explaining their recruitment selection criteria.”

Although a tightening labour market may have contributed to more nepotism fears, the hope is that 2020 has at least been responsible for the more widespread adoption of technology that helps to clearly signify fair play.

At accounting firm BDO its head of people, Rob Worrall says: “I can understand why some may have a perception of nepotism, and historically this may have been more of an issue as recruitment and career progression was at times about ‘who knows who’.

"But it isn’t the case today and it’s down to all recruiters to prove that. We are keen to be as transparent as possible when it comes to our early in career recruitment processes.

“We’ve just conducted our first virtual onboarding for our November cohort of 400 trainees – a mixture of graduates and apprentices.

"We changed our assessment process precisely to assess for potential rather than strengths, with candidates made aware of this when doing their initial application. Those meeting eligibility criteria then take an online assessment designed to measure potential.”

Worrall adds: “Successful candidates are invited to a virtual assessment centre comprising group exercises and presentations, but they also have an opportunity to ask questions to existing BDO members of staff.

"Basically, them knowing someone in our business isn’t going to help them score any higher. Our recruitment team and assessors have also received training to ensure they fairly and objectively assess candidates.”

When we live in a world where nepotism increasingly appears normal – particularly from social media, where some people’s stellar rises seem to be based more on what their surname is – perhaps it’s no surprise downbeat grads fearful of their post-Brexit, post-coronavirus future are more sceptical than ever.

“Celebrity culture and apparent overnight success really does distort the fact most people need to put a lot of graft in to get where they want,” says Isherwood.

But there’s one last consideration that perhaps shouldn’t be ignored here either: that grads also need to take some ownership too. “People can just as easily be held back by their own mindsets. Grads need to take responsibility for their own careers paths,” argues Glaze.

But, she concludes, it is not, and should not be, a one-way street: “It’s not to say HR can’t play a part too, to make sure it gets the message out there that grad places are available to all.”


This piece first appeared in the January/February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.