The reference fallacy

Short version: Based on my experience, large majority of good jobs in Canada and America are fulfilled based on merit – your qualifications, experience and soft-skills. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you won’t get a job until you get to know someone inside a big company. Focus on your merit instead; do certifications, improve your communications skills, achieve more, work hard and work smart!


Being blessed with the opportunity to mentor hundreds of individuals over the last decade or so, I am always learning about real and perceived obstacles to employment or advancement faced by many individuals.

One of the most consistent perceived obstacle is the false belief that a reference from an inside a large organization is required to get a good job. One of the key sources of this false belief are cultures from which many of my mentees are from, particularly India, Pakistan and other Asian countries. I am a Pakistani-Canadian, and I have seen this in practice myself. It’s certainly true that many people in these countries get jobs based on nepotism, reference, favoritism and bribery. It’s an unfortunate fact.

To a small extent, this is also true in Canada, America and Europe. One key difference however that I have noticed is that in most larger organizations in Canada, America and Europe, there are strict policies and rules against nepotism. Most large organizations in Canada and America (e.g. HP, Cisco, etc.) don’t allow managers to hire immediate family members. Many large organizations also have very clear anti-fraternization policies as well – for similar reasons. Even more pressing however is that the hiring managers in these organizations have strong motivation to only hire the best – as their reputation and future professional growth in the organization is on the line.

Over the 19 different jobs I’ve held so far, I have observed that when favoritism does happen in Canada and America, it’s mostly limited to junior or entry-level jobs.

At least in the IT sector, in Canada, for large majority of jobs, especially intermediate, advanced or expert roles, nepotism or favoritism through references is simply not possible. Large majority of the roles are fulfilled based on meritocracy. There are certainly exceptions – but those are rare. The candidates that are interviewed and eventually hired are typically perceived by the managers to be the best fit for that particular role. Very often hiring is done by a committee consisting of hiring manager, director and HR, which also almost entirely eliminates most types of favoritism.

When I am hiring, or other professionals I know are hiring, our reputation as professionals is on the line to make sure we do our due diligence and hire the best, most qualified, most appropriate candidate. If we hired based on nepotism or via references, choosing to give the job to our brother-in-law or our sister or our best friend, and that individual turns out not perform well at his/her role, then we ourselves would put our role in jeopardy, and lose trust of our superiors to hire future candidates.

Can you imagine if Apple hired based on favoritism, references or bribery? They wouldn’t even be able to make one iPhone, let alone millions. Apple, Google, Cisco, Amazon and other similar organizations hire best of the best. Most organizations in Canada and America, at least in the IT sector, similarly have strong motivation and financial pressures to always hire the best candidates, not a family member or someone who’s referred. It’s not simply just an ethical motivation, it’s also a pragmatic financial motivation.

Hiring through connections simply does not work for any company that actually wants to grow. Businesses that strictly hire only within the family (as many small businesses do) stay small, and never outgrow the confines of the family. Eventually many of these businesses close down due to competitors hiring the best, rather than hiring based on nepotism. The restaurants that only hire from only within the family eventually close down, or stay small. The restaurants that hire the best on the other hand continue to thrive and often open multiple locations. In Toronto I have witnessed this happening personally with so many restaurants. There are many “family run” successful businesses, but they hire outside of the family for the appropriate roles.

In summary, get certified, study, work hard, achieve, make a compelling resume, work on communication and other soft-skills, apply to many different jobs, and you will have opportunity to work in better and better roles. Don’t fall into the reference fallacy!



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