So Much for Qualifications: Employers Hire People They Like

A new study suggest likeability may be more important than ability in getting a job, especially at the highest echelons.

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Ever wondered how recruitment folks at elite law, banking and management consultant firms choose between all those Ivy League graduates who arrive at their doorsteps bearing dangerously high-GPA degrees? Those with the best skill set? Those with the greatest level of commitment? Those with the most impressive hair?  If an interesting new study is to be believed, they choose the ones they like.

The study, published in the American Sociological Review, looked at the interview and hiring techniques of the three high-paying professions —first year JDs can expect to make about $175K a year—to tease out how much cultural cues influence who gets those plum jobs. The researcher, Lauren Rivera assistant professor of management and organization at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, conducted 120 interviews with job interviewers to figure out what criteria they use.

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Hiring practices are important because, as all job seekers are all too well aware, the first position is always the toughest one to land. Once a young lawyer already has a few years under his or her belt at Tony, Tony, Tony & Titan law firm, other doors swing open more easily.  Moreover, since pay in the legal, banking and management consultant sector can get stratospherically high, the job interview for that first position is ground zero for income inequality. It could be argued that those 45 minutes are when society decides who’s going to be the 1% of the future.

Finding a successful employee is not an exact science, but it’s one of the key arts of management. Hiring the wrong person is an expensive mistake. And, yes, many of the candidates who apply for the elite jobs have had superior educations and worked really hard; that’s what gets them into the room. So what’s the secret sauce? As Rivera puts it in the study, “Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves.”

This is not so surprising; a firm’s culture is important. It’s how one business differentiates itself from another, how it goes about its mission and determines who will be its leaders. But sometimes, Rivera argues, this was more important than ability. “Concerns about shared culture …often outweighed concerns about productivity alone,” she writes in the study. This was not necessarily a race thing or a gender thing, both cultural categorizations which have been extensively studied. This is more about an elusive quality known as fit.

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“Evaluators described fit as being one of the three most important criteria they used to assess candidates in job interviews; more than half reported it was the most important criterion at the job interview stage, rating fit over analytical thinking and communication,” says the study (italics mine). And what is “fit?” Basically, it’s whether your colleagues feel like they’d be able to spend the long hours with you that these high end positions entail. As one evaluator put it: “You know, you will see more of your co-workers than your wife, your kids, your friends, and even your family. So you can be the smartest guy ever, but I don’t care. I need to be comfortable working every day with you.”

(One of the joys of this study are the quotes from the evaluators. Consider this gem, from a banker: “We don’t really like people here to have outside interests.”)

And how do job applicants come by this “fit?” Well, either they’re lucky and their interviewer also played squash, lacrosse and viola, or more likely, they have such a wide swath of interests and abilities that they can find something in common with almost anyone. “Cultural similarity can thus be thought of as a form of capital that has economic conversion value in labor markets,” writes Rivera. In other words: hobbies and interests are able to be traded or cashed in when it comes to job hunting.

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But interests and skills don’t arrive overnight. They are the result of years of cultivation not only by the job applicant, but more saliently, by the job applicant’s  parents, who have to have sufficient wealth, patience and know-how to get their kids participating in the right activities early. That usually turns out to be wealthy, upper class parents—you know, that 1%. It turns out income inequality starts really early.