Careers Apr 3, 2013

Hirable Like Me

Inter­view­ers favor appli­cants who remind them of themselves

Based on the research of

Lauren Rivera

So much depends upon nail­ing a job: salary, com­mute, col­leagues, self-image, per­haps the arc of an entire career. This is what first attract­ed Lau­ren Rivera, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School, to the study of hir­ing prac­tices. Hir­ing is one of those crit­i­cal gate-keep­ing moments where­by the judg­ments we make about peo­ple have endur­ing effects,” says Rivera. She want­ed to under­stand how peo­ple size each oth­er up dur­ing social inter­ac­tions, and how such judg­ments con­tribute to labor mar­kets and social inequalities.

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So Rivera set out to study a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the hir­ing process: the job inter­view. Over the course of two years, she con­duct­ed 120 inter­views with hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als at elite firms, 40 each from the fields of bank­ing, con­sult­ing, and Big Law. Rivera asked the hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als spe­cif­ic ques­tions about what they were look­ing for from an inter­vie­wee and probed their thoughts on can­di­dates they had recent­ly inter­viewed. In addi­tion, she asked them to pro­vide ver­bal com­men­tary on a set of mock can­di­dates who var­ied along a num­ber of fac­tors such as gen­der, grade point aver­age, and extracur­ric­u­lar activities.

These inter­views pro­vid­ed Rivera with a broad sense of inter­view prac­tices at elite firms. But she also want­ed the inside scoop, so she gained access to the inner work­ings of a large pro­fes­sion­al ser­vice orga­ni­za­tion. She essen­tial­ly made the firm — whose iden­ti­ty can­not be revealed for pri­va­cy rea­sons — an appeal­ing offer: in exchange for her ser­vices as a recruit­ment-event plan­ner, she would be privy to all aspects of the recruit­ment process, includ­ing hir­ing-com­mit­tee meet­ings where job appli­cants’ fates were ulti­mate­ly sealed. (There was one excep­tion: she was not per­mit­ted to sit in on the actu­al inter­views, as con­cern was expressed that can­di­dates might find her pres­ence creepy”). For nine months, this is exact­ly what Rivera did.

Sim­i­lar­i­ty Mat­ters

So what did she find? After care­ful­ly tran­scrib­ing and ana­lyz­ing her inter­views and field notes from obser­va­tions in the firm, Rivera deter­mined that, by the time a can­di­date had made it through the rel­e­vant resume screen­ings and land­ed an inter­view, her eval­u­a­tion was not nec­es­sar­i­ly based on max­i­miz­ing skill — find­ing the per­son who was absolute­ly best at the soft or the hard dimen­sions of the job,” as Rivera puts it. Rather, the most com­mon mech­a­nism by which a can­di­date was eval­u­at­ed was her sim­i­lar­i­ty to her interviewer.

Rivera attrib­ut­es this sim­i­lar­i­ty effect to three fac­tors. First, and by far the most com­mon, is the ques­tion of fit. She dis­cov­ered that firms with­in pro­fes­sion­al ser­vice occu­pa­tions have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. For exam­ple, some are coun­try-club” and oth­ers scrap­py.” The extent to which a can­di­date can con­vince an inter­view­er that he is also coun­try-club” or scrap­py” will affect his prospects. But even beyond fit­ting in with the firm, can­di­dates must appeal to indi­vid­ual inter­view­ers. They must pass what one hir­ing pro­fes­sion­al described as the Strand­ed In the Air­port Test: Would I want to be stuck in an air­port in a snow­storm with them? And if I’m on a busi­ness trip for two days and I have to have din­ner with them, is this the kind of per­son I enjoy hang­ing with?”

Inter­view­ers get excit­ed about can­di­dates who share their own pas­sions, and are there­fore like­li­er to serve as their cham­pi­on in the final hir­ing-com­mit­tee deliberations.

Anoth­er fac­tor at play is what Rivera has termed Look­ing Glass Mer­it, or the idea that peo­ple uncon­scious­ly define mer­it in a self-val­i­dat­ing way. Because these firms leave a lot of dis­cre­tion to eval­u­a­tors — I want you to pick some­body that’s dri­ven!’ — but they don’t tell you what dri­ve looks like, peo­ple end up defin­ing it in their own image,” says Rivera. She explains that inter­view­ers who them­selves majored in physics, for instance, might claim to favor physics majors due to their ana­lyt­i­cal train­ing. And this process, unlike the oth­ers, seems to be fair­ly uncon­scious. I don’t think a lot of peo­ple knew the degree to which their own biogra­phies were shap­ing their def­i­n­i­tions of merit.”

Final­ly comes excite­ment. Inter­view­ers get excit­ed about can­di­dates who share their own pas­sions, and are there­fore like­li­er to serve as their cham­pi­on in the final hir­ing-com­mit­tee delib­er­a­tions. Rivera writes of one hir­ing pro­fes­sion­al, Scan­ning the resume, his face lit up as he saw Sarah’s extracur­ric­u­lar pur­suits. She plays squash. Any­one who plays squash I love,” he said smil­ing, and imme­di­ate­ly ranked her first.”

What Is at Stake?

Of course, elite firms select future employ­ees from elite appli­cant pools, pools in which it is the norm to have attend­ed a selec­tive insti­tu­tion, received decent grades, and engaged in extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties. Giv­en that can­di­date pools are so elite, Rivera is com­mon­ly asked, does it real­ly mat­ter who is or is not hired? Firms must adopt some cri­te­ria, after all, and sim­i­lar­i­ty is easy; is it real­ly so bad?

But Rivera argues that yes, it can mat­ter. Even in elite hir­ing pools, there is still impor­tant vari­a­tion in qual­i­ties that are direct­ly relat­ed to the job, such as pri­or work expe­ri­ence and course­work. Grades in par­tic­u­lar have been shown to be a decent pre­dic­tor of job per­for­mance, though employ­ers often dis­count them. In addi­tion, instead of rely­ing on inter­view­ers’ snap judg­ments to ascer­tain crit­i­cal inter­per­son­al skills, such as the abil­i­ty to inter­act with team­mates or clients suc­cess­ful­ly, inter­view­ers could more sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly assess these qual­i­ties through role plays or group interviews.

But even more than poten­tial­ly miss­ing out on high per­form­ers who are sim­ply dif­fer­ent from the aver­age inter­view­er, firms are giv­ing up diver­si­ty of thought. Being like­able is impor­tant; you have to inter­act with clients, you have to get peo­ple on board on your team,” says Rivera. But there are oth­er ways peo­ple can a) be like­able and b) be social­ly skilled oth­er than being a mir­ror image, and I think that is what peo­ple are los­ing out on. We know from a lot of research that there are ben­e­fits to hav­ing diver­si­ty.” Diver­si­ty — be it demo­graph­ic diver­si­ty or diver­si­ty in back­ground knowl­edge — has ben­e­fits: it helps groups make bet­ter deci­sions, increas­es group moti­va­tion, enhances cre­ativ­i­ty, and can be a strong draw for clients.

But giv­en today’s hir­ing real­i­ties, how can can­di­dates con­vince an inter­view­er that they’re a good fit? Don’t lie, says Rivera. But do some research on your inter­view­er, if you hap­pen to have her name, just to see what inter­ests you might share. And if you do not have this option, and you find your­self in the mid­dle of an inter­view, just be obser­vant. Look around the office. Is that a soc­cer tro­phy? A sil­ly elec­tron­ic toy? A fam­i­ly pho­to? It’s about find­ing com­mon ground in a way that is not inau­then­tic to you.”

Featured Faculty

Lauren Rivera

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg, courtesy)

About the Writer

Jessica Love is the staff science writer and editor for Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Rivera, Lauren A. 2012. “Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms.” American Sociological Review, 77(6): 999-1022.

Read the original

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