Are Cultural Fit and Comfort Still the Rules in Hiring?

A study from Northwestern University suggests that, despite the inroads in diverse hiring practices, hiring managers -- at least those in the professional-services industry -- are still putting their own personal likeability factors and comfort zones above skills when determining a candidate's job fit.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
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For all the rhetoric around the need to improve workforce diversity, and for all the efforts under way at companies to "show they care" -- such as revamping hiring-manager training or establishing diversity officers and /or diversity committees -- it seems human nature is still nipping away at progress.

A recent report out of Northwestern University suggests that, whatever else an employer is looking for in a job candidate -- basic skills to effectively do the job, competencies such as proven work ethic or managerial style, even a fresh perspective on an age-old role or function -- the real decision driver still appears to be hiring someone they feel comfortable with and would like to hang out with.

The study, which appeared in the December issue of the American Sociological Review, titled "Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service," took in 120 interviews from 2006 to 2008 with candidate evaluators involved in undergraduate and graduate hiring in elite U.S. professional-services firms, including investment banks, law firms and management-consulting firms.

It found evaluators often valued their personal feelings of comfort, validation and excitement about a candidate over identifying candidates with superior cognitive or technical skills. In fact, more than half of the evaluators in the study ranked cultural fit -- the perceived similarity to a firm's existing employee base in leisure pursuits, background and self-presentation -- as the most important criterion at the job-interview state.

"It is important to note that this does not mean employers are hiring unqualified people," says researcher Lauren A. Rivera, an assistant professor of management, organizations and sociology at Northwestern. "But, my findings demonstrate that -- in many respects -- employers hire in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners than how one might expect employers to select new workers.

"When you look at the decision to date or marry someone, what you think about is commonalities," says Rivera, who maintains hers is the first systematic and empirical investigation into whether shared culture between employers and job candidates matters in hiring. "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? These types of things are salient at least to the employers I've studied."

In fact, a segment titled "The Baby Lab," which aired on 60 Minutes on Nov. 18, supports the notion that all humans have an innate instinct -- beginning at birth -- to make decisions (in this case, moral ones) based on comfort zones. In the televised special, babies (pre-verbal ones) chose contact with puppets based on types of moral ("good") or amoral ("bad") behaviors the puppets had exhibited and, therefore, represented -- perhaps similar, or perhaps a precursor, to adults (in this case, hiring professionals) making decisions based on comfort zones.

As Stephen A. Miles -- founder and CEO of The Miles Group, a New York-based consultancy specializing in CEO succession, and former vice-chairman of Chicago-based Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership-development consultancy -- puts it, " 'The Baby Lab' reinforces that there is some innate wiring in all individuals for the familiar."

Rivera's study further suggests that the cultural similarities valued at elite professional-services firms have important socioeconomic dimensions. "Evaluators are predominately white, Ivy League-educated, upper-middle 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 says.

"Given that less affluent students are more likely to believe that achievement in the classroom rather than on the field or in the concert hall matters most for future success and focus their energies accordingly, the types of cultural similarities valued in elite firms' hiring processes has the potential to create inequalities in access to elite jobs based on parental socioeconomic status."

Not so fast though, says Gerry Crispin, co-founder of CareerXroads, a staffing-strategy consultancy based in Kendall Park, N.J. He questions the validity of Rivera's work as a true depiction of today's hiring realities, most notably because of the time period she studied.

"Given the time in our history when this was done," he says, "she studied an isolated subject [i.e., the professional- and financial-services industry] before it blew up and caused a worldwide recession. So her report should reflect the craziness [and context] of that time and place."

Furthermore, Crispin says, careful considerations around culture have a place in today's hiring market. "For example," he says, "in an increasingly crowd-sourced, social and mobile world, where teams of people need to collaborate and where they seldom get the chance to do so face to face, the soft competencies around how a candidate demonstrates [he or she values] diversity ... is part of a bona-fide cultural fit that might be as important as the individual's skills, knowledge and experience to the success of the team and the enterprise.

"Would you hire a world-class technical person for a team role who was demonstrably uncomfortable with women and only spoke to the men on the team ... and would that make a difference to you if the person happened to have religious reasons?" says Crispin. "I'm not suggesting a right answer here, but I'm suggesting context is critical."

Indeed, a job candidate's ability to fit into a particular culture can and often should be an important consideration, especially in an organization or industry where culture is key, says Elise Freedman, Washington-based director in the talent-management practice of Towers Watson.

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"Even here at Towers Watson," she says, "our firm is all about establishing and maintaining relationships. If a [job candidate for her firm] seems uncomfortable with eye contact [or other functions of relating], that might not fit with the culture."

There are some jobs and cultures, Freedman says, that "might require a certain kind of comfort level with going to or partaking in sports events" with top executives. What's imperative for hiring managers in those cases, to avert any discriminatory overtones or undertones, is to "craft [interview] questions very carefully about things the candidate may have done" that show strength in event planning and participation.

"You're not going to ask if the person likes to play golf or belongs to a country club," she says, "but you can craft a question about preparing and delivering a presentation for top-level executives" that might help reveal the candidate's comfort zone with, and ability to relate to, top-level executives.

The danger, underscoring a pressing need for enhanced hiring-manager training, is when seemingly "harmless questions -- 'How many kids do you have?' 'What church do you go to?' -- take you down a dangerous [and discriminatory] path," says Freedman. Though cultural affinity and fit is fine to a point, and has a place in considering job candidates, she says, "I have learned and often consulted that small talk can be the most dangerous part of an interview."

Interestingly, bonding in an interview "over what school you went to and what sports team you support" doesn't necessarily fly in the face of diversity, says Miles.

"If you think about these [professional-services and] strategy firms," he says, "you have to dress a certain way, speak a certain way, you have to follow certain cultural 'rules' ... race, ethnicity, gender, those are well-represented in those workforces; they're diverse in that regard." There, comfort zones relate more to socioeconomic, recreational and educational affinities and affiliations.

The real culprits standing in the way of corporate diversity, says Miles, are "leaders who don't know how to lead diverse teams."

At higher and higher positions in corporate America, "there is less diversity," he says. More importantly, those in charge of developing leaders rarely admit "that being a diverse leader requires a higher level of leadership skills, such as drawing people out and engaging employees on all different levels of sophistication, skill and background."

Miles says he's seen many companies "aspiring to have diverse organizations, trying to inject diverse people into their teams," then failing to sustain that culture because such efforts "dwindle down as you migrate to the C-suite [and because] we never teach people how to lead diverse [organizations]."

Giving weight to what feels familiar and culturally comfortable during a job interview, he says, "is an age-old bias system that has been around for centuries" and may never change. Truly tackling diversity, he says, lies in "teaching people how to lead diverse teams" -- be they of different ethnicities, genders, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds and, yes, sports and college affiliations.

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