Boomerang or alumni recruitment – good for business, bad for diversity?
By Mike Hoffman
It could be said that the only people who hate good times are recruiters.
When the economy is growing and more people are employed than ever before, the worst thing is having to find a greater number of scarcer people to employ. The UK currently has the highest number of employed people ever, the demand for core skills across the economy is outstripping supply as our burdened education system struggles to produce the skilled workers we need for the next decade. From engineering to IT, retail management to quantity surveying, employers are under pressure to find new sources of potential candidates.
Many have chosen to find old sources instead, by re-recruiting former employees as an active strategy, rather than a happy accident. It’s easy to see why: the savings on recruitment, onboarding and training costs; the promise of a good fit, without the need for those pesky psychometrics; someone who can hit the ground running; in betting terms, a dead cert. So when the hiring manager asks her HRBP in exasperation for the third time why they can’t find anyone, it’s an ace in the hole.
I remember speaking with a graduate recruiter from a Big Four firm a few years ago who complained that graduates treated his scheme ‘like a hotel’. What he meant by that is they swan in without any understanding of how hard the work was, expecting a smooth ride into middle management in 18 months, and Partnership before their 30th birthdays. Within 2 years, he was telling graduates they should look on the firm as a springboard to a future career outside the business, to grow as people before returning at a more senior level.
Alumni as assets to the detriment of diversity
Both Deloitte and Credit Suisse claim to make nearly 20% of their hires through alumni recruitment, but the big visionary in this field is McKinsey, who actively build it into their recruitment process before graduates join. When recruiters for the firm visit business school campuses or meet with prospective applicants, they talk about the extensive impact of being McKinsey alumni. “We will talk about not just the great training you’ll get and the great problems you’ll work on and the wonderful clients you’ll work with, but also the fact that the firm does celebrate those lifelong connections and how we keep our alumni connected” said Sean Brown, the global director of alumni relations.
And yet there is also something about this approach that large corporate businesses need to be wary of, in the face of another big challenge of our time: Diversity. Or, more broadly, social mobility. Last month The Social Mobility Commission reported back on the last twenty years. And the findings weren’t great. In almost every category, those born at economic disadvantage were considerably less likely to attain good qualifications, employment and, even, health, no matter their own talents or determination.
Big Four firms have actually taken their responsibility in this area very seriously. They have taken their message of opportunity directly out into communities where ‘non-traditional Big Four’ audiences live. People for whom KPMG could be a chicken restaurant, so removed is the corporate life from their sphere of reference.
Alumni recruitment seems at odds with this. Instead of doing the legwork involved with understanding your audience, the market and how to reach them, it’s a shortcut. This is not to say someone who has worked for you before can never return. But to use them as a plank in your recruitment platform seems disingenuous, no matter how sophisticated your network is. Because short cuts here lead to inherent confirmation bias in the process, no matter how fair and open you make it. Assuming you even have a process, if you’re hiring that many people from your own back catalogue. It’s narrowing opportunity for others that risks creating a two-tiered recruitment process as an unintended consequence.
We need to look at the full picture
I have spoken with junior managers in businesses who believe the unspoken way to get a pay rise is to leave and then return in two years, three grades higher than where they were. Trading on loyalty and a friendly working culture, the tacit development plan was: get someone else to do it.
Going back is a risk for anyone who tries it. For every Steve Jobs, there is a Graham Taylor. There are no guarantees for anyone, and to invest your hope in alumni as a failsafe can be an excuse for not addressing more fundamental issues with your recruitment and workforce planning. Which is bad for business all round.