I'm pretty sure I once got a job because the person who interviewed me decided that she liked me. Looking back, I couldn’t have been the most qualified person to apply for the position at the nightly television news program where I got hired. I had never worked in TV and though I had seven years of journalism experience under my belt, it was at a specialized trade magazine, The American Lawyer. But the producer who hired me knew that we would be working very closely together on a four-person team that put together nightly discussion segments with hard on-air deadlines. She knew she wanted to have good chemistry with the person she hired.
Now an academic study by an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management confirms what I experienced when I got hired at the TV news show: Hiring managers don’t always pick the most qualified applicants. They hire people they like and want to spend time with. They hire people who they think could be their friends.
The study, by Professor Lauren Rivera, looked at hiring in elite investment banks, law firms and management consulting firms. Rivera conducted 120 interviews with hiring managers over the space of two years. What she found: “interviewers often privileged their personal feelings of comfort, validation and excitement over identifying candidates with superior cognitive or technical skills.” In other words, they hired people they could relate to, whom they liked. Writes Rivera, “in many respects they hired in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.” Though Rivera focused on a narrow range of professions, I would venture a guess that her findings apply in a broad range of fields.
The stories in Rivera’s report are revealing. One of her findings: The majority of employers in her study described their firms as having distinct personalities that come from the hobbies and presentation styles of their employees. For instance, some firms are “sporty” and “fratty,” while others are “egghead” or “intellectual.” Rivera quotes a hiring partner at a consulting firm who says, “We want people who fit not only the way we do things but who we are.” These findings underline the perils and advantages of listing interests in the “other” section of a résumé.
One striking example from Rivera’s paper: A legal hiring manager at a “scrappy” firm rejected an otherwise qualified applicant because “I’m looking at the interests [on his résumé]—lacrosse, squash, crew [laughs]. I’m sort of giving him a personality type here, and I don’t think he’s going to fit in well here. . . we’re more rough and tumble. . . . I’m going to let him go.” She tells another story of a hiring manager who rejected a candidate who had expressed an interest in 18th-century literature and avant-garde film because he seemed too “intellectual.”
To put it more broadly, one investment banking hiring manager said, “One of my main criteria is what I call the ‘stranded in the airport test.’ Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?”
Among law firms, investment banks and consulting firms, demand for cultural fit was most prized in law firms, where more than 70% of evaluators said “fit” was an important part of the hiring decision. At investment banks, it was important in a bit more than 60% of cases and at consulting firms, in 40% of cases. Because evaluators at consulting firms often use case-based business questions, they link the hiring process more closely to skills. Rivera quotes one consulting firm hiring manager: “Even if someone’s a perfect fit, if they absolutely bombed the case, they’re out.”
Rivera’s paper underlines how important it can be to include non-work interests on your résumé. She quotes a banker who says, “She plays squash. Anyone who plays squash I love,” and ranked the squash-playing applicant first among potential hires. A banker who was interviewing candidates says, “She and I both ran the New York marathon. . . we talked about that and hit it off. . . we started talking about how we both love stalking celebrities in New York. . . we had this instant connection. . . I loved her.”
Though nothing in Rivera’s paper surprises me, it’s striking to read work by an academic who has systematically measured the extremely subjective aspects of job interviewing. The paper underlines what all job seekers know: There is an aspect of the hiring process that is profoundly subjective and ultimately unfair. You can’t control who your interviewer will be and whether they will share your personality and interests.
There are a couple of things you can control however. As you’re researching a firm where you might want to work, do ask questions about the culture and think about whether your personality would fit in. Along with speaking to competitors and to people who work there and who used to work there, spend some time on a website called Glassdoor.com, that lists worker reviews of employers. Also do include a section under the heading “Other” or “Interests” on your résumé, and include hobbies, sports and foreign travel. Your passion for squash or for running marathons might wind up getting you the job.
Related on Forbes: