Continuous Improvement

Net Loss – Why Are We Seeing Exclusionary Graduate Hiring Networks Replicated Online?

Handshake's latest report, Netpotism, provides research suggesting that rather than acting as a true social accelerant, in many cases, the impact of the pandemic has been to move existing systems of entrenched privilege online. This, along with the digital divide affecting interviews, presents significant issues for those who are less well-off and well connected.
Written by Clare Adams

For all the damage it has done to our lives, the assertion that the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerant to social change and technological advancements is now commonplace.

The World Economic Forum tells us that “COVID-19 has hit fast forward on a number of trends, from e-commerce to workplace culture,” and graduate and student recruitment is no exception to this trend.

It’s true that a widespread and quick shift online has been beneficial for many, opening up opportunities to take jobs with no geographical limits, collaborate and communicate with geographically disparate friends, family and colleagues - and even take the opportunity to learn something new. But one unforeseen negative of this shift is the fact that for many businesses, this move to a virtual-first recruitment policy has contributed to businesses leaning more heavily on existing networks when hiring graduates.

Introducing Netpotism – Or Why We Need to Force Job Online Networks Open

Our newest piece of research suggests that rather than acting as a true social accelerant, in many cases, the impact of the pandemic has been to move existing systems of entrenched privilege online. Since the start of the pandemic, 24% of HR decision makers say they have asked friends to recommend potential graduates, 17% have asked family members and 30% have asked colleagues for suggestions.

We call this trend Netpotism. Indeed, while there is potential for professional networks to open up this process over time, the risk remains that these platforms just link people together by showing them people who know the people that they know. All this does is add another link to the chain, rather than solving the problem. What’s more, on many platforms you get suggested connections who went to the same school or university to you.

But why is it that businesses are making these decisions, in a time where arguably there’s more expectation than ever to have a diverse, inclusive workplace? In the past year, a lack of access to in-person routes to recruiting students and graduates has certainly played a part. A third of businesses (33%) say they have become less reliant on campus-based careers fairs, while one in five (20%) are now less reliant on university careers services.

Long-term Damage from a Fear-Based Hiring Process

Worry about making the wrong decision while working at a distance is another factor – 22% of those responsible for hiring told us that they prefer to hire people they know at the moment because it represents less of a risk. As long as fear of an impending recession exists among businesses, this aversion to wasting cash will be a factor when looking for talent.

Aside from the damage this supposedly ‘safety first’ approach will have on workplaces and businesses’ long-term success as they miss out on highly capable candidates that can bring a different perspective, it has the potential to disillusion a generation of young people too.

From the student and graduate perspective, our research shows that a third believe that job applications and interviews are biased towards people who have existing connections, while 15% feel excluded from job opportunities due to their background.

What’s more, more than one in four have been frustrated by entry level jobs demanding unreasonable amounts of experience – which generally means they’re more accessible to those who have had the connections and safety net to do relevant internships. All this is likely to have a ripple effect for years to come in the jobs market.

Mitigating Risks in Virtual Recruitment

Similarly, while it appears some employers may believe that hiring known or recommended candidates removes risk, particularly if their view is that it’s not possible to engage with potential recruits on virtual platforms to the same extent as they could face to face, the flipside of this issue is another story of exclusion for young people.

While the typical image of the tech-savvy youngster might reign supreme, the reality is that the shift to digital interviews has also caused a lot of problems. Remarkably, our report found 91% of students have experienced some kind of issue with online interviews since the pandemic. The most common problems encountered during virtual interviews are a poor internet connection disrupting a video interview (34%), being worried about somebody else in the household walking in (28%) and poor equipment like microphone or laptop causing issues (26%) – all of which are problems that tend to disproportionately affect applicants who are less well off.

Virtual connections do have the potential to offer the same in-depth and impactful engagement opportunities as in person connections. But there is a huge amount of work to be done to ensure equality of access.

How Employers Can Break Out from Closed Networks

So the crucial task now is to channel this energy for change and use tech to cultivate a hiring process that not only creates a more equitable playing field for graduate and student candidates from all backgrounds, but also makes sense for employers too. A more diverse recruitment pool fuels a more rounded, capable and innovative workforce.

It’s not an easy task for employers to break these new, closed, barriers - but one that can be achieved through a proactive approach. Employers must take steps to connect with institutions, not just to secure candidates at graduation, but to help influence curricula, engage with students all the way through their studies - and get closer to their future recruits. This will mean not only a more equitable route to securing talent, but also that better skilled candidates enter the workforce - with a clear understanding of what employers need and expect.

On top of this, technology has the potential to help apply new parameters to the search for talent. Aside from the established issues around equality and diversity, recruiting graduates based on friends or family in common, or the university or school they went to is simply not effective. It actually tells you little to nothing about how capable they are of doing the job, or wanting to take it on, of their ambitions for the future, or the skills they have and are developing. This is part of the problem we set out to solve by building Handshake – giving employers an insight-led way to find staff, rather than rely on existing connections, or whittling down huge numbers of prospective candidates that came via applications on job sites.

How Can Universities Help Stop Netpotism?

The UK is set to see a tough jobs market in the near future – the November 2020 Economic and fiscal outlook from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projected potential unemployment at 11% in Q1 2022, in its worst-case scenario. With this in mind, it is even more important to ensure grads can access the roles that do exist, and for employers to find the best talent and fuel recovery.

Part of the solution lies in ensuring that young people have the technology required to access career opportunities, tackling issues like slow broadband – or device and connectivity provision for disadvantaged students.

But university careers services can play an anchoring role in helping to resolve some of the issues brought about by this sea change in the graduate jobs application process. Data collated by Finder that young people tend to be mobile-first, and those from poorer backgrounds have less consistent access to laptops, Wi-Fi and a regular space to work in, careers services needs to do its best to make its own offering mobile-first too, when accessed remotely.

Platforms like Handshake also offer a compelling mobile-first platform, which universities can bring on board to help facilitate employers and graduates connecting directly. This also meets the desire for proactivity expressed by students – a third (32%) say they want to more often hear directly from employers that are looking for student and graduate candidates like them.

When access is ensured, students also need to feel comfortable with the technology they’re using. This means university careers services can support those entering the jobs market by offering training and advice on how to conduct job interviews and the applications process too – with the new hybrid approach to recruitment and all the pitfalls faced as a result in mind.

It takes commitment from many parties to make sure that changes and new technology become a force that has a net benefit for society as a whole, rather than enabling corner-cutting or cost savings at the expense of the individual. And so, for all, collaboration, perseverance and determination are crucial.


Mobile internet statistics. (n.d.). Finder.Com. Retrieved May 6, 2021, from

Office for Budget Responsibility. (n.d.). Coronavirus analysis. Retrieved May 6, 2021, from

Routley, N. (20–05-07). 5 major trends that are being accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. WEForum.


graduate hiring employability digitalisation post COVID-19 higher education

About the author

Clare Adams
Head of University Success, Handshake

Clare Adams is Head of University Success at Handshake, working with Universities to level the playing field and ensure that all students have equal access to meaningful work. Prior to this, Clare has spent over a decade in a variety of roles across student and careers services. She worked with AGCAS Social Mobility Working Party, helping develop resources for universities and graduate employers to promote social mobility, and has also been part of the University of Westminster's careers team, as a Careers and Employability Service Manager.

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