Study shows employers hire the same way they choose friends, romantic partners

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11 2012 6:30 a.m. MST

Rather than assembling a team of rivals, interviewers look for similarity when hiring employees, according to a study.

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At the onset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln hired a group of political rivals to help him. As Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," and Steven Spielberg's new film based on Goodwin's book depict, Lincoln wanted people who thought differently than he did.

But when Lincoln hired his team, he did not choose them the way hiring managers choose employees today. A new study shows that when people hire employees, they are not looking for competitors, but rather for the same commonality they might find when choosing friends or romantic partners.

People don't want a team of rivals, but a team of friends. Knowing this cannot only help employers pick better employees, but help job seekers learn ways to do better in interviews.

High stakes

Lauren Rivera, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, saw that something was missing in studies of how managers hire employees. Studies on hiring were limited to available data — things that were easy to observe such as school, work experience, race and gender.

"The assumption was employers hire on the basis of what is on resumes as opposed to more difficult to measure things," Rivera says.

So she chose to do a study looking at hiring practices in elite professional service firms — law firms, investment bankers and consulting firms. "These are high stakes jobs," Rivera says. "The long-term economic effects of getting hired and not getting hired are huge."

Rivera conducted 40 interviews with employers in each of the three types of firms, 120 interviews in total (a large sample for this type of sociological survey). She spoke with hiring partners, managing directors, mid-level employees who conduct interviews and HR managers. The results were printed in the Dec. 2012 American Sociological Review.

You've got a friend

Rivera discovered interviewers are, of course, looking for people who have qualifications to do the job — but in the interview, they are looking for a cultural fit.

"They are looking for a fit with the whole person," Rivera says. "Who are you outside the world of work? What do you do with your spare time? Where are you from? Do you have a sense of humor? Do you have a similar vibe to other members of the firm?"

They wanted someone who was similar to them. Someone they could gel with and would want to spend time with.

Interviewers would also consider the extra-curricular part of a resume, looking for things in common.

When Rivera tells her MBA students about the study, she says it doesn't surprise them.

"Of course," they tell her, "you want them to be able to do the job, but also somebody you could go get a beer with."

The process interviewers go through is very much the same as when somebody is picking a friend or romantic partner.

"When you are looking for a friend," Rivera says, "you are looking for a good person."

Differences in employers

Even though all three industries Rivera interviewed were part of the elite professional services firms, she noticed some differences between the industries.

Interviews conducted by law firms were the most conversational. Investment banker firms gave a few direct tests on skills, but still kept the interviews somewhat conversational. Consulting firms were more likely to use tests such as asking applicants how they would solve particular consulting problems.

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