A new study found that when it comes to human resources hiring decisions, employers may value candidates who are a good cultural fit over those who can do best on the job. The researchers voice concerns that the emphasis on background similarities may create a class bias in hiring at elite firms.
Study author Lauren A. Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organizations and sociology at Northwestern University, spoke out in the December issue of the American Sociological Review. She said, “Of course, employers are looking for people who have the baseline of skills to effectively do the job. 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.”
Based on more than 100 interviews at leading U.S. investment banks, law firms and management consulting firms, more than half of the evaluators ranked cultural fit as the most important criterion at the job interview stage. Rivera suggests that this may mean that parental socioeconomic status plays a big part here. She said, “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 also commented on how these findings might apply to other workplaces. While leisure interests would be expected to be particularly significant in more affluent circles, the specific cultural similarities that matter might vary in different settings. If you’re applying at a health food store, maybe no one will care if you play squash, but being a vegan could potentially give you an edge.
While the authors say this is the first empirical demonstration of this process, human resource professionals have long recognized the importance of finding candidates who fit in. This is one reason behind detailed job descriptions that give applicants a chance to screen themselves out if long hours or a laid-back environment doesn’t jibe with their personal values. It also helps to explain why employee referrals are highly valued for finding new employees who will connect with the current ones.
If nothing else, employers may want to consider whether the study findings suggest a barrier to bringing on board new employees who could be top performers and the implications for developing diverse and inclusive workplaces. For recruiters and job seekers, it’s another reminder to pay attention to extracurricular activities and other considerations that could be even more important than grades and job skills.