Employers are often more interested in hiring someone they would like to hang out with than in finding the person who is best for the job, according to new research.
“Of course, employers are looking for people who have the baseline of skills to effectively do the job,” said study author Lauren A. Rivera, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management and organizations and sociology at Northwestern University.
“But, beyond that, employers really want people who they will bond with, who they will feel good around, who will be their friend and maybe even their romantic partner. As a result, employers don’t necessarily hire the most skilled candidates.”
The study is based on 120 interviews Rivera conducted with professionals involved in undergraduate and graduate hiring in elite U.S. investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms, as well as her own observations of the recruiting department of an elite professional service firm over nine months in 2006 and 2007.
According to the researcher, recruiters and HR personnel often valued their personal feelings of comfort, validation, and excitement over candidates with superior cognitive or technical skills.
She noted that more than half ranked cultural fit — the perceived similarity to a firm’s existing employee base in leisure pursuits, background, and self-presentation — as the most important criterion at the job interview stage.
“It is important to note that this does not mean employers are hiring unqualified people,” Rivera said.
“But, my findings demonstrate that — in many respects — employers hire in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners than how one might expect employers to select new workers. When you look at the decision to date or marry someone what you think about is commonalities. Do you have a similar level of education? Did you go to a similar caliber school? Do you enjoy similar activities? Are you excited to talk to each other? Do you feel the spark? These types of things are salient, at least to the employers I’ve studied.”
The study also found that basing decisions on cultural similarities can make it more difficult for some job seekers.
“Evaluators are predominately white, Ivy League-educated, upper-middle or upper class men and women who tend to have more stereotypically masculine leisure pursuits and favor extracurricular activities associated with people of their background,” Rivera said.
“Given that less affluent students are more likely to believe that achievement in the classroom rather than on the field or in the concert hall matters most for future success and focus their energies accordingly, the types of cultural similarities valued in elite firms’ hiring processes has the potential to create inequalities in access to elite jobs based on parental socioeconomic status.”
While she looked at hiring at professional service firms, Rivera believes the same practices occur in other occupations.
“I think the degree to which cultural similarity matters in the decision to hire varies across occupations depending on their technical demands, their degree of social demands, and how structured interviews are,” she said. “So, for example, if you were hiring a neurosurgeon, I think there would be more of an emphasis on performance than cultural fit.”
The study was published in the American Sociological Review.