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New research by Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Lauren Rivera suggests that in job interviews, chemistry may be more important than qualifications.

New research by Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Lauren Rivera suggests that in job interviews, chemistry may be more important than qualifications.

Friends in high places

Employers follow their hearts in hiring decisions, says Kellogg assistant professor

12/5/2012 - Every employer sets out to hire talented, capable people. But when it’s time to make a job offer, a candidate’s qualifications may matter less than her personality.

“Of course, employers are looking for people who have the baseline of skills to effectively do the job,” says Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations Lauren Rivera. “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.”

Rivera’s new study, “Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms,” appears in the December issue of the American Sociological Review.

Feeling the spark
According to the study, evaluators at firms often valued their personal feelings of comfort, validation, and excitement over identifying candidates with superior cognitive or technical skills.

“It is important to note that this does not mean employers are hiring unqualified people,” Rivera says. “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?”

The cultural disadvantage
The study also found that the cultural similarities valued at elite professional service firms may prevent qualified but less affluent candidates from climbing the corporate ladder.

“Evaluators are predominately white, Ivy League-educated, upper-middle-class 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,” says Rivera. “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.”

In some professions, skill trumps all
Rivera says the types of cultural similarities employers value may not be the same for all occupations. “Cultivating leisure time is a hallmark of the upper-middle and upper classes, and it’s really important as a class marker and as a source of identity,” she says. “You may see different types of cultural similarities that matter in occupations that are less elite.”

And in some cases, charm is still no match for talent. “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,” Rivera says. “So, for example, if you were hiring a neurosurgeon, I think there would be more of an emphasis on performance than cultural fit.”