Are You Hiring for Skill or Friendship?

Hiring managers all seek out to find the very best candidate they can: Someone who has the most qualifications, has proven skills and would fit right into the existing office culture. However, a recent study suggests employers tend to hire more for personality rather than qualifications.

The study, “Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms,” says employers react to their own personal feelings when in the hiring process rather than finding job candidates who have the right skills to match the job description.

“Of course, employers are looking for people who have the baseline of skills to effectively do the job,” says Lauren Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organizations. “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 reiterates in the study that hiring managers and employers are not hiring unqualified people, but the hiring process is actually similar to that of looking for a new friend or romantic partner. There are certain questions people ask themselves when looking to engage in a new personal relationship, and many of these are reflected in the hiring process. “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?”

There are, of course, a few cultural disadvantages to following your heart in work matters.

“Evaluators are predominantly 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,” Rivera notes.

This often leads to less qualified and less skilled employees getting more opportunities to move up in the company, while others who may not share the same cultural similarities but are more qualified get forgotten about.

However, the study notes that the same may not be true for all professions. These specific cultural similarities tend to be important to the elite, high-end corporations. Rivera says different cultural factors may be important to other occupations.

“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.”

“Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms” appeared in the December 2012 issue of American Sociological Review.

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