News 2008


Recruitment Takes an Ethnic Twist After Chaos

Business Daily (Nairobi)

15 February 2008

Beatrice Gachenge

Recruitment agencies as well as head hunting firms have found themselves between a rock and a hard place in the wake of December's outbreak of ethnic-based violence.

As companies come to terms with the full impact of the political unrest, recruitment firms are having to deal with aspects of hiring personnel that have never mattered in the past - at least officially. Recruitment has taken an ethnic turn and some employees are including the ethnic identity of people they want to hire in the instruction sheets.

The recruitment agencies reckon that while some companies are making these specifications for purely practical purposes, a few employers are doing it as an extension of the ethnic wars that are being fought on the streets.

"The majority of companies that are making these demands have a good reason for it," said Mr John Cheruiyot, the director Kicher & Associates, a head hunting firm. "Most of these companies have been forced to transfer employees from certain parts of the country to ensure their safety and are looking for replacements.

The worst hit are companies with country-wide operations such as banks, security and public utility firms. This type of staff re-organisation and the accompanying costs was recently manifest in the transport sector.

After losing a number of trucks to arsonists mainly due to the ethnic identity of the drivers, the owners of the trucks took to hiring "the right people" to drive the trucks through certain sections of the highway to avoid the lynching. Mr Cheruiyot, however, frets that ethnic profiling exposes the recruitment process to bias and could ultimately balkanise the country.

Simon Muthiora, the director of Manpower Limited, another recruitment firm, reckons that headhunters may henceforth be forced to restrict their search to people who are acceptable to communities living around the proposed working station to keep the workers' motivation high and lower risks.

He, however, warned that the loss of confidence among Kenya's communities could consume the labour market and erode the competitiveness of local firms at a time when they are facing increasing
foreign competition. In the short term, however, the recruitment agencies say the biggest challenge facing them is the sudden drop in demand for their services.

What had become a booming business in last four years as the economy steadily expanded has taken a U-turn with no signs of recovery. "Instead of hiring, most companies are laying off staff," Mr Cheruiyot said.

Mr Muthiora gives the example of a Kericho-based client who had finalised the recruitment process for a number of vacant positions in December, last year, but has indefinitely suspended the actual hiring of the recruits.This, he said, posed a big challenge to the recruitment agency because they cannot hold onto the candidates without offering them any contracts.

Isabel Ngugi, Associate Director at Deloitte, said many employers had put their hiring plans on hold pending the resolution of the political conflict. Ms Ngugi said recruitment for the middle and lower level
management had been hit hard by the freezes unlike top level management that has only been slightly affected.

But while most HR practitioners are hesitant to discuss the role of ethnicity in their hiring decisions in the wake of recent developments, a few acknowledged that it offers the potential for the more companies to start outsourcing the recruitment function to escape responsibility for ethnic bias.

Madeline Dunford, the managing director of Career Connections reckons that because companies do not want to stand accused of unethical practices in recruitment, the will fall back on third parties to perform the function.

How companies will go about hiring qualified staff while remaining sensitive to the emerging ethnic challenges remains to be seen.

"Ultimately companies will be forced to compromise on qualification. We may have the very qualified candidates failing on the basis of ethnic identity," said Elly Omolo, director Management Training & Consulting. "In the end, companies will lose in terms of productivity."

Industry players now reckon that in the worst case scenario, companies hiring on the basis of ethnicity irrespective of the political turmoil may fail to obtain any qualified candidate in their tribe of choice.

Another danger would be the escalation in the cost of human resources as experts who can work in certain regions become scarce or demand higher remuneration in lieu of the danger they will be exposed to working in some parts of the country.

On the flip side, industry palyers say that companies also stand to gain from cheap labour from the internally displaced persons, striving for the mere basic needs.