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When it comes to landing a good summer job, many students have come to expect nepotism and preferential hiring in the private sector, says Ian Boyko, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students.

But it was a blow, when a Public Service Commission audit uncovered "a pretty significant degree of abuse" in the federal public sector as well, Mr. Boyko said in an interview.

"Nepotism and hiring who you know is really the way things operate in the private sector. The public sector ought to be a lot more accountable."

The Public Service Commission's announced crackdown on hiring abuses is welcome news, Mr. Boyko added, and will go some way toward restoring students' faith in the public service as a career option.

Results of an audit, which were released last month, found that relatives or friends of the hiring managers filled almost 20 per cent of student job positions in the federal public service last summer.

Release of the report provoked an immediate outcry in Ottawa, with the criticism tempered only slightly by the commission's assurance that it had sent letters directing all deputy ministers to review their hiring practices.

To be sure, preferential hiring goes on in the private sector as well, Canadian Alliance MP John Williams, chairman of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said in an interview. "But they [private sector employers]are not using taxpayers' money."

Most shocking, Mr. Williams said, was the scale of the abuse in the federal public service. Each year, there are as many as 97,000 students registered as candidates for the roughly 8,000 jobs filled through the Federal Student Work Experience Program.

"These people are motivated, enthusiastic and idealistic. When they find that the system is bent in this way, it destroys their faith in the system," Mr. Williams said.

The Public Service Commission said, in reporting the results of its audit, that the federal government's ability to attract the most qualified candidates depends on the integrity and fairness of the hiring process.

However, the PSC reports, when federal government recruiters visit Canadian campuses, they encounter a lot of cynicism: "For the PSC to call students and refer them to jobs, where the manager has already decided to hire someone else, creates false expectations, leading to further cynicism about legitimate chances for students to access public service jobs," the report said.

"These concerns were raised regularly during campus visits or at marketing kiosks, indicating that managers need to be reminded of the importance of demonstrating respect for staffing values, and that efforts will be required to rehabilitate the program in the eyes of students."

What the PSC found in its audit, was that many managers tailored their job descriptions so that few of the candidates referred by the Public Service Commission would qualify. "Most of the problems identified related to managers seeming to have tailored their requests in order to defeat the random element of the computer program and force the referral of a student they have in mind to hire."

The random survey of more than 700 student job positions in the federal public service last summer "confirmed the allegations of pre-matching" in 19 per cent of the cases, although the government's code of conduct specifies that employees must not afford preferential treatment to family and friends.

In one case uncovered by the PSC auditors, "a student reported to be the niece of the manager came up in the search," the report said.

"The PSC declined to make the referral. The manager called and complained that other people's children worked there and asked who were we to refuse the referral."

Nycole Turmel, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, said it creates a "very uncomfortable" work environment when the prime qualification of the person in the next cubicle is his or her close personal relationship with the boss.

"We think it is a problem for the credibility of government. It's a quality problem when the job description doesn't fit the job properly," Ms. Turmel said in an interview. "We need good and committed people."

Mr. Williams said the discipline of the marketplace curbs abusive hiring in the private sector -- most businesses cannot afford to carry non-performers. In small businesses and family-run businesses, summer hiring can be quite informal and relatives do make it onto the payroll, he said.

However, Mr. Williams added, "it's their business and they can do what they want . . . they are not covered by the rules of the public sector."

A number of larger private sector employers actively encourage employee referrals of prospective employees.

However, in the case of Procter & Gamble Inc. of Toronto, for instance, once an application has been received, "the screening process really does take over . . . and it's quite rigorous," spokesman Win Sakdinan said.

Successful candidates must survive several rounds of interviews in order to make the cut, he said.

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