Recruiters Network Assocuation (RNA)
Chiranjit Banerjee
January 20, 2009

I remember receiving at least 2,000 resumes in sealed envelopes after we released a print advertisement for two junior manager roles in American Express Co. (where I was working then) in the late 1980s.

Some of the respondents were general managers of state owned banks who had probably not read the prescribed upper age limit of 28.

Cut to post-liberalization India . Candidates don’t show up at interview venues after repeated advertisements in print, television and radio by potential employers. Some of these employers are information technology (IT) and operations service providers of the best and the biggest banks in the world, including American Express, Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. India’s demographic dividend seems to have run out of steam, with jobs far exceeding aspirants.

In the closed economy that we experienced up until 1990, the dominant provider of jobs was the government and affiliated public sector units. These jobs were characterized by a stringent selection process (it would be more appropriate to call it an “elimination” process) and an equally rigorous verification process spearheaded by the police force.

Ahead of State Bank of India offering me a probationary officer’s job in 1979, I was visited at home by the local SHO (station house officer), who put me through an inquisition to assess my “character”.

A friend who coordinates police verification requests for multinational IT companies recently confided in me that police officers in Kolkata tersely asked him to produce an introductory letter from a cabinet rank minister if he expected their cooperation.

Before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh freed us from the shackles of confused socialism, private sector jobs were as rare as an oasis in a desert. Products of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) were, of course, snapped up by the Hindustan Levers (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd) and Citibanks, but the less academically proficient had to have boardroom access to find even a modest job with any Indian group.

It was almost inconceivable then that a private sector employee would be from an “unknown” milieu. The IITs and IIMs had their own methods to screen out anyone who was remotely criminal in intent. And the less academically privileged, who had to settle for less inspiring jobs, had their family trees documented by the personnel departments of the Birlas, Goenkas, Singhanias and Modis.

But IT and business process outsourcing, or BPOs, have introduced a whole new paradigm in terms of hiring. The focus of hiring is now clearly on skill sets and far less on softer and perhaps more controversial cultural adaptability.

The demand for talent by the technology, retail and real estate industries has compelled recruiters to look beyond our top cities and tap the tier II and III destinations, which is fantastic, as youth from these cities were denied most of the options that city slickers grabbed with impunity. But this has also led to people from

questionable institutes of learning, phantom companies and hazy backgrounds achieving access to high security zones that most of our technology campuses are.

On their part, the new generation of knowledge based employers are grappling with the challenge of "putting bums on seats" in a tearing hurry whilst ensuring that their antecedents are squeaky clean. The background screening business that has come about as a consequence is still evolving with no visible self regulatory mechanism. Leading the charge were MNCs like Hill & Associates and Quest Research (later acquired by Fortune 500, First Advantage) who brought some internationally accepted practices at a price which was only affordable to the bulge bracket clients.

Cost pressures have driven the majority of companies into the slippery arms of homegrown background screeners who are more opportunistic in their methods than robust.

Some universities as well as some employers continue to be reluctant in sharing details of their alumni and former employees which makes the task of accurately verifying credentials that much more daunting.

The police seem to have more important priorities than establishing the bona fides of prospective private sector employees and are known to either refuse to cooperate or charge an unreasonable price.

That leaves the screening process rather brittle and unrealiable which is not unknown to the recruiting companies but they still go through the motions, as it were, dispalying a mentality that is more obsessive about "checking the box" than actually sifting out undesirable elements.

 

Chiranjit Banerjee is general partner at PeoplePlus Consulting.