I’m always interested in reading about leadership and selection issues from a different perspective.  As in any field, HR (and industrial psychology) can become an echo chamber of the same ideas without generating much new thought.  With that in mind, I was fascinated by this article about interviewing and cultural fit.  Don’t be scared off because it’s from an academic journal of sociology.  The writing is straight forward and you don’t need to be a sociologist to follow it.

The author, Lauren A. Rivera, looks at the initial screening practices of “elite” law, consulting and finance firms when they are hiring new college graduates.  She originally wanted to study them regarding gender issues, but became more interested in their idea cultural fit and how it affected the firms’ hiring practices.  She describes in very good detail where these firms generally look for candidates, the process of the interviews, and how the evaluation committee (which frequently does not include someone from HR) comes to their decisions.

In speaking with the interview panel participants, Rivera reports that cultural fit is the most prominent factor in deciding whether the candidate moves on.  As she digs deeper, cultural fit (how well will this person work in our environment) doesn’t so much apply to the firms as does, “Would I like this person?”  Think about that for a minute.  This is the gateway to someone entering a firm starting at a six-figure salary (plus substantial bonuses), and the chief concern of the interviewers is whether or not they would enjoy being stuck in an airport with the candidate.  As Rivera succinctly puts it, “Essentially, they [the interviewers] constructed merit in a manner that validated their own strengths and experiences and perceived similar candidates as better applicants.”

There were many explanations for this approach to interviewing (the applicant pool was homogeneous in terms of skills, “we do a lot of training”, and [laughably] “anyone can do this job,” etc.) and it’s possible that more structured assessments would take place later in the process.  Rivera also reports that fit was more important in jobs where there was more group work involved (law) than technical work (consulting).  Only in consulting were technical skills (via questions based on case studies) evaluated at this stage, though fit was still given more weight in the decision making process.

The online comments I saw about the article focused on the skills vs. fit argument.  The bigger issue is that this process is internally focused (Would I like working with this person?) instead of externally focused (How will hiring this person improve the quality of our services?).  For firms paid for their analytical skills, it was surprising that so little of that was applied to screening prospective employees.  The point of the article was not to validate the process, but it was surprising not to hear any of the firms defending the practice based upon data (it’s possible that such comments could have been made but didn’t make it into the article).

I don’t think that the practices described in the article are unique to top flight professional services firms.  You would probably see the same thing at other firms or in other white collar industries.  In this instance, given the personal investment of the partners, it would be a huge challenge for HR to change the practice and they would have to justify the reason for it.

From a business perspective, the firms make tons of money, so there isn’t an immediate economic driver to change.  Nearly of the students described in this process will land a great job in their chosen field, so there’s not a labor market problem of the youngest and the brightest not finding work in a field that maximizes their skills.  However, what if this is not the best way to sort talent?  Would consulting Firm A be even more successful if it hired a higher percentage of the best talent compared to Firm B?  Is it possible that “hiring people like me” leads to a more engaging, but less profitable firm?  If the firm is privately owned, maybe after a certain profit level the partners value the friendship factor more than economic ones.

The biggest takeaway for me was (besides the confirmation that if you, or your child, wants a job at a prestigious firm, an Ivy League education and internships at top companies is the best way to get there) how little proven effective selection methods had permeated the firms.  This is not meant to disparage the HR professionals who work at these firms.  Rather, it shows how powerful the hiring echo chamber is.

What’s your takeaway from the article?

For more information on pre-employment testing, skills assessment, test validation, and talent management, please contact Warren at 310 670-4175 or warren@allaboutperformance.biz.