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Shared interests can trump job skills for entry-level applicants at elite companies

Big-time investment banks, law firms and management consulting companies choose new workers much as they would choose friends or dates, zeroing in on shared leisure activities, life experiences and personality styles, a new study finds.

These elite firms recruit Ivy League students assumed to have basic job skills and then select those who jibe with the organization’s culture and personality, says sociologist Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Similarities in hobbies and outside interests have been proposed as keys to acceptance into exclusive groups for more than a century. In the December American Sociological Review, Rivera provides the first systematic look at how this effect influences the hiring process.

Rivera initially wanted to see how the sex and race of both job applicants and interviewers at top professional companies affected who got hired. She soon realized that cultural ties between applicants and interviewers primarily determined who got job offers.

“I was surprised at the power of shared culture in hiring decisions made by these employers,” Rivera says.

Psychologists often treat discrimination as an unconscious tendency for individuals to evaluate various groups positively or negatively (SN: 4/22/06, p. 250). But Rivera’s findings underscore how values and activities of one’s social class that are typically taken for granted can be deliberately used to segregate people into different workplaces, remarks Harvard University sociologist Michèle Lamont.

From 2006 to 2008, Rivera interviewed 120 professionals involved in hiring undergraduates and graduates applying for entry-level jobs at banking, legal and consulting firms. Rivera also attended recruitment events, spoke with interviewers after they had met with applicants and sat in on hiring committees’ deliberations at one company over nine months from 2006 to 2007. Rivera is keeping that company’s identity confidential.

All recruits were assumed to have enough “intellectual firepower” to learn how to be good bankers, lawyers and consultants. But Rivera says that once the interview process started, other factors appeared to outweigh job qualifications. This especially held at banks and law firms, where job interviews included no pre-set questions about how applicants would deal with technical aspects of their work.

When asked to assess mock applications, evaluators focused most often on determining the extent to which candidates had the same leisure activities, past experiences and personality style as current employees did. Most interviewers used a simple hiring criterion that many called “the airplane test.” As one investment banker put it, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?”

Participants said that they had fought hardest to hire real-life applicants with whom they had felt a deep connection, typically because of shared interests or personality traits.

Applicants’ social poise and problem-solving skills also figured in hiring decisions.

As a result, evaluators described their own and others’ firms as having distinct personalities related to employees’ extracurricular interests and social styles. Companies ranged from “sporty” and “scrappy” to “egghead” and “country club.” One outfit even specialized in hiring people with drab personalities.

Top-ranked firms uniformly favored applicants who cited upper–middle class leisure pursuits such as rock climbing, playing the cello or enjoying film noir.

Picking employees from the same cultural basket may have pluses and minuses, Rivera adds. Hiring people with common traits and interests may create a cohesive work force. But shunning prospective employees with different life histories could also make firms susceptible to reaching decisions quickly without evaluating alternative ideas.

Rivera suspects that many corporations outside the elite ones she studied hire people based on cultural background as well as job skills. Cultural similarity probably plays a lesser role in hiring applicants for highly technical jobs, such as emergency room physicians, and when interviewers pose pre-determined questions about a job’s technical aspects, she says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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