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.
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.
Anecdotally, Rivera has noticed similar things in other industries. Some, like engineering companies, may concentrate much more heavily on specific skill sets.
A high-tech industry might prefer a lone wolf for certain jobs.
In other industries, the cultural fit may be more of an issue in interviews.
Knowing that an interviewer may be looking for similarities in personality and commonality in experiences and background can help both employers and job seekers.
Employers, Rivera says, can conduct better interviews if they know this factor of cultural fit is in play. Instead of interviewers giving too much weight to how similar the person's personality is to their own, steps could be taken to increase the importance of job related skills and diversity. For example, the company could withhold the extra-curricular section from the interviewer. This way the interviewer would have to focus more on the qualifications. Standardized tests that measure industry and job-specific skill sets could make the interview process more objective as well.
"Extra-curricular activities are often more exciting to talk about," she says, "than saying, 'Tell me about the financial model you built at your last job.’ ”
Job seekers, for their part, could benefit from researching a company more thoroughly, Rivera says. This research needs to look not just at what the company does and provides to its clients, but also intangible aspects.
"What are they like?" she says. "What do they value?"
Pluses and minuses
The practice of hiring interviewers looking for commonality has its upside and downside. The benefit is new employees will almost automatically share a lot in common with their co-workers and get along well, Rivera says.
"Where it runs amock," she says, "is you miss out on different perspectives. You could miss out on some people who would have been great at the job."
Maybe Lincoln knew what he was doing after all.