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For Some Employers, "Cultural Fit" Trumps Skill

What's the Latest Development?

In what Northwestern University professor Lauren A. Rivera says is the first systematic study that examines the impact of shared culture on hiring practices, recruiters of elite companies involving in undergraduate and graduate hiring often rate their own personal feelings of "cultural compatibility" with a candidate ahead of the candidate's cognitive and technical skill sets. The study, which appears in the December issue of American Sociological Review, is based on interviews with professionals at investment banks, management consulting firms, and law firms, as well as on observations of a recruiting department.

What's the Big Idea?

Rivera says that employers tend to choose new workers the same way they might choose friends or even romantic partners. "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." She stresses that while the findings don't necessarily mean that the people hired are unqualified, focusing on cultural commonalities over skills creates the potential for inequalities in access to certain jobs. Also, the degree to which culture is preferred over skill may depend on the industry: "If you were hiring a neurosurgeon, I think there would be more of an emphasis on performance than cultural fit."

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