The Politics of Hiring

Jul 20, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

The Human Resources Commissioner for Chicago recently resigned. He had been originally hired to implement a hiring system free of politics. Apparently, the Commissioner had made some employment decisions that were influenced by politics, and then lied to the Chicago Inspector General about them. This was a great loss, given how high a priority the city’s administration placed on this project — being the result of a consent decree signed in 1972. But after he succeeded in freeing hiring from politics in the hometown of Rod Blagojevich, he was scheduled to find a cure for cancer and solve the global economic crisis. Tragic. Very tragic.

Interestingly, he had been scheduled to talk at a major HR conference about how he was implementing a hiring process free of politics. I believe it was labeled “Tilting at Windmills.” The commissioner was a political appointee, and not necessarily the best qualified person for the job. Of course he may very well have been the best candidate — the fact that the gentleman is the treasurer for a political action committee that contributed to the mayor and a key alderman couldn’t possibly have influenced his selection. Then again, he was perhaps not the best choice to be a spokesperson on acquiring talent. One might as well ask Joe Biden to speak at a Toastmasters convention.

So what exactly was the Commissioner supposed to do to make the hiring process in the Windy City free of politics? An independent review had identified some deficiencies in the city’s process that included:

  • Improper interference by several departments in the screening and referral of applicants
  • Failure to identify job requirements
  • Failure to post job openings
  • Hiring from a limited pool of pre-selected applicants
  • Placing individuals previously deemed unqualified on eligibility lists

The solutions proposed included documenting all hiring related activities, communications, justifications for hires, using assessments, training managers and the HR staff on interview and selection procedures, etc.

Rolling a Rock Uphill

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. That’s pretty much what trying to free hiring from politics is like. Even if the city had a process that addressed all those deficiencies, it would not necessarily be free of politics, as illustrated by the recent Ricci v. DeStefano decision. The case was more about political interference in hiring than discrimination. New Haven’s hiring policies and process produced a result that did not sit well with the powers that be. So the city decided to toss out the results and to find a test of “equal value” that would produce a different, and more palatable result. Letting politics influence hiring is bad, except when it’s good. To some extent, the problem with diversity in recruiting is politics in hiring, and that’s not just limited to governments.

Despite all the technology, assessments, and procedures an employer has in place, no process is perfect. Subjectivity of one sort or another invariably influences the outcome. Any recruiter who has been on the job more than a week has experienced some attempt to influence the process. To some extent this is a matter of degrees; how far does the interference have to go before it becomes unacceptable? Obviously, a person getting hired simply because of patronage is going too far, but it’s less clear when it’s not that blatant, such as when a candidate tries to use connections to improve their chances of getting hired.

There’s something hypocritical about a government claiming to try and eliminate politics in hiring, since usually all of the top jobs, and plenty of the lower ones, are filled by people chosen for their political affiliations more so than any qualifications they may have. It’s too much to expect that politics will not influence hiring in the government, but at least for leadership positions it’s important to keep up appearances and hire people who are qualified and credible. That sets the tone for positions lower down the line. For example, no one would hire a tax cheat to run the U.S. Treasury, since it includes the IRS. Oh, wait. Never mind.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!