Recommending people for jobs should be an exercise in impersonally conveying information you have about someone’s suitability for a position. In the Gulf, it can sometimes be about putting someone in your debt or installing a client in an organization where you might need to exercise influence. These regressive attitudes need to be phased out for labor markets to function effectively.
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In principle, calling a professional acquaintance to suggest that they hire someone you know should be a win-win-win: the employer gets a tip about a worthy prospective employee, cutting their search costs and time; the nominee gets considered for a potentially desirable job; and your reputation as someone capable of making cogent recommendations is enhanced.
Unfortunately, in the Gulf, this does not describe the mindset of certain recommenders. Some see the opportunity to suggest an acquaintance to a prospective employer through the lens of patronage and personal influence. This contributes to the many distortions that impede the sound functioning of labor markets in the region.
For some, things go off the rails as soon as a colleague asks them to recommend someone for a position. Rather than thinking: “Which qualified candidates do I know that might have an interest in this position?”, they ask themselves: “Whom do I want to do a favor by recommending them, so that I can call in that favor in the future? They might barely be qualified, but that’s a secondary consideration if I can help push them over the line.”
In extreme cases, this primitive mindset can take an even more sinister turn, when the recommender schemes about installing a client in another organization. They will choose someone whom they have “mentored,” where the inverted commas indicate that the mentoring didn’t really involve developing their professional abilities but was focused more on maintaining a master-servant relationship. The tacit agreement is that the recommender will do the client a favor by facilitating an opportunity to secure a superior job, but in exchange for this service, the client must continue to do the recommender’s bidding in their new position.
Experts in this approach can build impressive networks of clients that span numerous organizations. Getting their requests to move through those organizations quickly and acquiescently is simply a phone call away.
These kinds of perversions cause considerable damage to the effectiveness of Gulf labor markets. They undermine meritocratic norms and personalize hiring and decision-making in a manner that leads to inferior organizational performance. When someone ill-suited for a job is appointed, the organization suffers doubly: the employee makes poor decisions, and the colleagues who were unfairly overlooked become demotivated, reinforcing the decline in productivity.
Two aspects of the Gulf’s economic structure contribute to the presence of this archetype in certain hiring circles. The first is the broadly detrimental effect of hydrocarbon rents on productivity. Oil and gas revenues have allowed Gulf governments to over-hire in the public sector, shielded from the disciplining effect of competition. As a result, it is normal for capacity to fulfill the job tasks to be a secondary consideration when recommending someone for a job, since it doesn’t really matter if they can’t do the job well anyway.
The second is the persistent emphasis on interpersonal trust in business dealings, including hiring decisions. People’s trust in impersonal legal systems such as courts is lower than in comparably rich Western economies, and this makes people place a greater emphasis on personal affinity and loyalty in recruitment decisions.
In America, for example, a board of directors is happy to consider a stranger as CEO, as they are confident that the legal system will protect them from malfeasance should the CEO prove to be corrupt or incompetent. That level of trust is rarely present in the Gulf countries, and it therefore contributes to the clientelist mindset in hiring and job recommendations.
Fortunately, more progressive attitudes are increasing in popularity, and the “trading favors” version of job recommendations is diminishing in frequency. This is due to a combination of the mere passage of time, as the old guard enters retirement; and the meritocratic and KPI-laden language of the Gulf countries’ economic visions.
During the transition, we see a lot of friction between champions of each mindset, disrupting operations within larger organizations. However, a combination of lower oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic have strengthened the hand of the new generation, as legacy human resources practices are now demonstrably untenable.
More than at any point in the Gulf countries’ modern history, when applying for a job, people care about the content of your CV more than the strength of your personal network. When a new employee joins the team, and they are presented to their colleagues, they are introduced with a reference to their professional background, not the personal relationship that secured them the position.
Nevertheless, there remains significant room for improvement, especially in older and larger organizations, where veterans continue to occupy the upper echelons. We could just wait for these types to retire gracefully.
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