Nov. 29, 2012 at 7:28 AM ET
Chances are, you’ll never see a job listing like this: Help (and friend) wanted — Must share common interests and be fun to spend time with.
But a research paper released Thursday finds that when it comes to choosing job candidates, employers place a heavy emphasis on finding people who are similar to them, and whose company they enjoy.
Lauren Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, spent two years interviewing people who were hiring entry-level candidates for several elite law, investment and consulting firms.
She found that the companies did give considerable weight to whether the candidates were qualified for the job, including looking at things like which university they graduated from, what grades they earned and their knowledge of the field.
But she was surprised to find how much importance they placed on finding candidates who were a good “cultural fit” for the company. That often meant things like sharing a common interest in certain sports or extracurricular activities, or just being the type of person you’d be content to go on a business trip with.
As one consultant she interviewed put it:
“It seems like we’re always at work. We work nights; we work weekends; we are pretty much in the office or traveling. It’s way more fun if the people around you are your friends.”
Rivera also gave evaluators mock resumes listing certain extracurricular activities. She found that some evaluators accepted, or rejected, candidates based on things totally unrelated to job experience and qualifications, such as whether they’d played squash or lacrosse.
Of course, it makes sense that people will hire people that they like. But Rivera said she was surprised by how openly people talked about recruiting candidates in the same terms they might use to discuss finding friends or even romantic partners.
“I expected people to be a bit more guarded, but I think it’s taken for granted (that this is) part of the industry: I need to be able to get along with you,” she said.
There are clear upsides to hiring people you like, because you are more likely to get along with them and work well together. But Rivera noted that, especially at the elite firms she was focused on, the shared interests and extracurricular activities also often signaled a middle- to upper middle-class upbringing.
“There is definitely a bias concern, and I think class bias is definitely an issue,” she said.
She thinks that people from lower economic classes or more diverse backgrounds might be excluded from those jobs simply because they didn’t do certain extracurricular activities, or didn’t know to put them on their resumes.
“Firms can miss out on great people,” she said.
Rivera said other highly technical industries, such as engineering or neuroscience, may place less importance on finding co-workers they like and more on the skills needed to do the job. But she does think that in any industry, part of selection process is going to involve looking for people you get along with.
The findings of Rivera’s research didn’t come as a surprise to Comila Shahani-Denning, an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Hofstra University.
Shahani-Denning has done research on how being attractive can affect people’s chances of getting jobs or commanding higher salaries. She’s currently looking at how LinkedIn and other social media sites are affecting hiring decisions.
Because employers are looking for good cultural fits, jobseekers should be especially careful about the photos they post on sites like LinkedIn, and about the extracurricular activities they list and the groups they belong to. Those things can help you make a connection with an employer, but they can also exclude you from a potential job.
Shahani-Denning also cautioned that by hiring candidates similar to their current staff, employers miss out on people who might bring different perspectives or experiences to the workplace.
“My feeling is that although it’s an attractive kind of tool to use, it can be dangerous,” she said.