How to handle sympathy-based employment

Human resource practitioners have had to grapple with the issue of sympathy based employment. A sympathy based employment simply means employment given to an individual to fulfill a promise made by an important member of the organisation or it could also mean employment given to a family member or a friend.

This type of employment rarely has to do with the competence of the employee who is to assume the proposed position. This emotion based consideration, unfortunately places the HR division, especially the head of the division, in a difficult position where he or she has to make a decision to either conform with the wishes of the employer or challenge the directive to employ in those circumstances especially where the proposed employee lacks the cerebral and physical ability to handle the proposed position or in the extreme case, resign rather than be accused of flooding the organisation’s workforce with incompetent hands. This is the everyday challenge faced by those in personnel management.

Power structures within organisations are said to mirror the socio-political structures of society especially within sole owner organisations. In this type of organisation, power resides in the owner of the business.  Where the chief executive officer of the organisation is not the owner of the outfit, more often than not, critical decisions are taken over and above his or her head, sometimes by a blood relative of the owner working within the organisation who has the ear of the owner or by an appointee of the cabal that helped to place the number one person within the organisation in the position where he or she is or even by a person involved in an amorous relationship with the owner.  This kind of environment upsets the system of any institution.

Power is intoxicating! A speaker at the recently concluded 2014 Chartered Institute of Personnel Management annual conference held in Abuja, reinforced this concept by drawing a comparison between the transparency and fair play which has characterised the CIPM elections in the last 45 years with most of the past Nigerian elections that were characterised by corruption, nepotism and chaos; and proposed that decision makers within government should study and apply the success pattern that has created the successful system of transition within the institute. One then wonders where the similarities of power and its downward or upward effects begin between the corporate hierarchy and the socio-political hierarchy, if the assumption that corporate organisations mirror the socio-political structure of society is true.

I will begin by making a comparison between the noticeable appointment pattern within the Nigerian government and its mirrored occurrences within the organisational enclave.  As intoxicating as power might be, it has little or no relationship with competence. Unfortunately, power takes precedence over competence in the way the Nigerian government makes appointments. Leaders within cabals, ethnicity and personal interests tend to decide and direct the outcome of these decisions. In the end, to fulfill promises made during elections, appointments are given to individuals who have no business occupying the positions they have been appointed to. They are placed in key positions to protect the vested interests of the primary parties involved, resulting in the failed system we are witnessing today. Can a doctor make a good communication strategist? I think not! Just take a look at their prescription sheets and you will decide for yourself. Some, however, may say it is arguable. But going by the verifiable data and evidence before the nation today, we can safely conclude that most of these appointments made out of sympathy are not working out at all.

Now, a close look at the way organisations recruit, will show that it is not too different from the way government does, as described in the preceding paragraph and as also highlighted at the beginning of this article. It is a given in our society that family members with leverage within their organisations do beg for and often obtain favors for their family and friends. I will also boldly state that in our culture and society, people expect to receive favours and preferential treatment once a friend, community or family member is promoted or appointed to a position of authority. This situation places the stress of maintaining a high competence level within the organization on the HR division. It could be a very challenging situation for the division, as they have to thread carefully to avoid offending the person who recommended the employee.

However, there are ways to manoeuvre through this sympathy employment maze. For instance, bearing in mind that the ultimate interest of every organisation is to gain maximum return on investment, it can be subtly and politely pointed out that the constant appointment or employment of incompetent hands will not help actualise the organisation’s vision and targets. Persisting in this vein will ultimately force the organization to make better decisions and in some cases, offer the person under pressure to act out of sentiment an inoffensive way of lowering the expectations from his family and friends. In the case where an appointment is being proposed for somebody not qualified for the position, it could also compel the decision makers to reconsider the idea especially if the position being proposed is critical to the organisation’s success. To save face, the employee may, in the alternative, be offered a position where he or she will not have too much influence. This kind of approach can also open up the window for other suggestions, which will not harm the business or the reputation of the principal who recommended the employee. Finally, in a sensitive case where the owner of the business is adamant that his trusted person must occupy that particular position, and in your professional opinion, the person cannot effectively hold the position, my counsel is that you second a genius in that field to work with the proposed employee.

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