The government continues to enforce fair hiring practices. Recent OFCCP rules are an example, and many businesses are ramping up their recruiting practices to eliminate those which may have an adverse impact on hiring "protected classes" (race, gender, etc.) A different way of describing this is that employers are reengineering their recruiting practices to ensure that all candidates are treated equally.
As a result, one practice in jeopardy is networking. The concept is widely understood, but for the sake of this posting, let me suggest a definition. When I talk about networking, I'm talking about candidates who bypass standard recruiting channels and come in to directly meet with senior executives and hiring managers through some sort of social networking. (They know someone at your company, or they know someone who knows someone, etc.)
Allowing certain candidates to bypass standard HR/recruiting channels because they "know the right people" ... smacks of elitism and favoritism, to say the least.
At the same time, it is widely recognized by smart job seekers that networking is an effective technique for career development and job seeking. Deliberately cutting off this wellspring is a very dangerous move for any company that wants to continue to attract top job seekers.
Some companies have tried to solve this by treating candidates who come to their attention through networking just like they would any other job seeker — asking them to apply online, having them fill out employment applications before engaging in meetings (even "informational interviews"). This is a dangerous solution, insofar as it is likely to scare off top candidates. So called "passive candidates," who may be willing to meet with your company to explore career possibilities, but are not in such an open state of "job seeking mode" that they will fill it forms or tolerate much in the way of HR red tape.
To me, the bigger context here is employer branding. Companies can (and do) develop reputations as actively encouraging smart people to cultivate connections with their organization — whether or not there is an immediate payoff for either party. Or, as bureaucratic organizations that maintain a set of staunch, protective hiring practices that force everyone to jump through the same hoops. I can think of several Fortune 500 companies here in Milwaukee that have terrible reputations of the latter sort. I wonder if they realize that?
I'm not sure what the legally defensible solution is here. Candidly, the key to encouraging high caliber job seekers to meet with people within your company is to provide a form of preferential treatment. Is there a legal way to do that? I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know. But I do know that networking is a critical recruiting practice.
Postscript: Legalities aside, there is one major risk associated with networking, from an employer's perspective. Insofar as like attracts like, excessive reliance on networking can lead to a homogenous workforce. Not just from a demographic standpoint, for example, but in many ways. The solution to this, I would suggest, is for an employer to proactively reach out to (and participate in) a variety of forums where they can encourage a diverse selection of potential candidates to explore career opportunities with them.