Employees believe connections are more important than talent in recruitment

Knowing the right people beats work ethic or competence, according to new survey

Most employees believe being well connected with more senior people and having the “right background” is more likely to land you a new job or promotion than talent alone, according to a survey. 

The poll of 2,000 UK workers aged 18 to 65 found two in five (37 per cent) believe that knowing influential people within a business is essential to being hired or promoted.

Only a quarter (26 per cent) said work ethic was an influential factor in getting hired or promoted, while 21 per cent said talent played a key role. 

Social background was also cited by 7 per cent of workers as being influential in promotion decisions.

The study formed part of The Social Mobility Pledge’s ongoing research on efforts to promote social mobility in business.

Justine Greening, former Conservative secretary of state for education and independent MP, and founder of The Social Mobility Pledge, said it was “truly shocking” so many people felt connections counted more than talent and work ethic when progressing their careers, and urged employers to avoid these “outdated practices” by implementing name-blind or contextual recruitment.

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“That is unacceptable because how can our country move forward as a whole when so many people feel they’re excluded from making the most of themselves because they don’t know the right person or belong to the right network?” Greening said.

“Family or personal ties have no place on the list of considerations when recruitment or promotion decisions are made.”

The Social Mobility Pledge endorses businesses that adopt practices such as name-blind or contextual recruiting – where an individual’s achievements are measured against the social and economic barriers they faced – which it said “promote a level playing field” for people with disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Commenting on the findings, Nicola Inge, employment campaign director at Business in the Community, said measures including blind or contextual recruitment were important in tackling bias around hiring or promotion decisions, but added they would not fully address diversity issues on their own. 

“I don’t think these measures or practices will address the fact that people get opportunities for promotion or hiring because of their connections and networks,” Inge said. “It doesn’t mean businesses aren’t trying to address this issue and break down barriers in recruitment processes – but I think a lot more needs to be done and the pace of change is not fast enough.”

Inge added that employers needed to realise that as well as facing barriers during the application process, people with less advantaged backgrounds may be deterred from putting themselves forward in the first place.

“What we have seen really works is when businesses put forward role models of employees [who took] less traditional entry routes into that sector,” Inge said. “Having those role models throughout the recruitment process signals to potential employees that there is commitment from the organisation to diversity, and it shows hiring managers there is importance in looking more widely at a candidate’s suitability for a role beyond just qualifications.”

Michele Trusolino, co-founder and CEO at recruitment firm Debut, said companies could not afford to promote employees based on their connections or “who they know” as it would impair the business's ability to create a productive, inclusive work environment as well as attract and retain top talent. 

“Diversity and inclusion has become such an important factor, especially for students and graduates, when deciding to join a company or remain there,” Trusolino said. “While diversity focuses more on recruitment, the effects of efforts in that area can be minimised if there isn’t a culture of inclusiveness throughout the organisation.”

She said objective and fair criteria for promotion and career advancement was essential to foster such inclusivity. 

The survey came as new research from Yale University found perceptions of accents in relation to a job candidate’s social class potentially affected the outcome of hiring decisions. 

Researchers found interviewers and managers made “immediate” assumptions about a candidate’s socioeconomic background based on the pronunciation of just a few words, and such assumptions influenced their hiring decisions.

Hiring managers were asked by the researchers to judge each applicant’s professional qualities, assign a starting salary and signing bonus and asses their social class based on a pre-recorded conversation in which the candidate briefly described themselves.

Managers were more likely to judge applicants with a ‘received pronunciation’ as being from a ‘higher’ social class and more competent for the job than those of ‘lower’ status. The researchers said managers also recommended higher starting salaries and signing bonuses for those perceived to have elevated social backgrounds.