Smart Hiring or an Employment Discrimination Case in the Making?

Study shows that people tend hire candidates who are culturally similar to themselves

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Of course you hire people you like, right? Why would anyone hire someone they don’t like? After all, you have to work with this person, hopefully for a long time. As long as you’re not playing favorites, hiring friends and family, or discriminating against obviously superior candidates based on their inclusion in a protected class, you’re fine, right? Seems logical, but it turns out that there’s more to it than that.

A study in the December issue of American Sociological Review has shown that having a shared culture is an important part of the hiring decision, and that people tend to hire candidates with whom they feel comfortable. And because of this, employers don’t always hire the most skilled candidate for the job. This unconscious bias in hiring can affect the demographic of a company.

The study went as far as to say that because of hefty time commitments, coworkers often, by default, became an employee’s primary social network. Consequently, evaluators at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire individuals who would not only be competent colleagues but also held the potential to be friends.

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Opportunities and Barriers

The study author, Lauren A. Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organizations and sociology at Northwestern University, conducted 120 interviews with professionals involved in undergraduate and graduate hiring in elite US investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms as well as participant observation of a recruiting department. Her study, “Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms,” revealed that “hiring practices are gate keeping mechanisms that facilitate career opportunities for some groups, while blocking entry for others.”

And it doesn’t just apply to hiring decisions. “Indeed, consciously or not, gatekeepers may use cultural similarities when evaluating others and distributing valued rewards. For example, in a classic study of interviews between college counselors and community college students, Erickson and Schultz (1981) found that establishing similarity was critical for whether a counselor believed a student had potential for future success and delivered a positive recommendation,” wrote Rivera.

A Natural Selection

Sounds like a recipe for a discrimination lawsuit. But how do you combat a person’s natural inclination to be drawn to others who are like them? And are qualifications on paper what counts in a hiring decision? How dangerous is considering cultural fit when it precludes the hiring or promoting of some people who make up protected classes?

“It represents a dual-edged sword that both enables and constrains (1) organizations’ attempts to diversify and (2) opportunities for candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups in the competition for elite jobs,” wrote Rivera.

But she also pointed out that it can challenge traditional sex and racial inequalities by providing new opportunities for women and ethnic minorities who display the right stocks of cultural signals. Many of the athletic, affluent, Ivy League-educated white and nonwhite women and men who were hired in the study were, in fact, minorities. “However,” points out Rivera, “the specific types of cultural similarities valued had a strong socio-economic dimension and could create new inequalities by parental social class.”

Is it wrong to hire candidates you feel will fit into your company, and your own, cultural community? Is there a way to get around the natural inclination to hire people you like? Should you try?