Meritocracy

Now hiring. Wanted? Someone just like me.

November 29, 2012: 11:04 AM ET

Hiring managers at elite consulting and law firms tend to lower the technical bar for candidates with common backgrounds and interests over more intelligent prospects, according to new research.

By Vickie Elmer

FORTUNE – Getting into an elite law firm or management consulting firm may seem like a game of meritocracy: may the best-credentialed win, and may those with well-placed connections come in second. But what you play and whether you'd be fun to play around with after work may count much more than you think.

Excelling in the right sport could advance you to a second interview, and being likable -- or a look-alike to your interviewer -- may be crucial to landing a position at professional services firms, according to new research from Northwestern University. Such connections could give candidates an advantage over someone more qualified who doesn't share the same cultural interests or background as their interviewer.

Employers value feelings of comfort, validation, or excitement when meeting with job candidates over a prospect's superior cognitive or technical skills, according to the research paper published in the American Sociological Review's December issue. Some interviewers even bent the rules to advance a candidate with a similar cultural or socio-economic background as their own. They would consciously lower the technical bar for candidates with whom they had a great spark.

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"Because of the long hours on the job, I really want to select someone who I would personally get along with and would like," says Lauren A. Rivera, an assistant professor of management  at Northwestern University.  Often, employers want someone "who will be their friend" or even a lover, she says.

One investment banker in Rivera's study said he emphasized a candidate's social fit because "you will see way more of your co-workers than your wife, your kinds your friends…. So you can be the smartest guy ever, but I don't care. I need to be comfortable working everyday with you … and then going for a beer after. You need chemistry."

Rivera interviewed 120 professionals at investment banks, law firms, and a management consultancy. All were working professionals, not human resources professionals or recruiters, who were sent out to interview undergraduate or graduate students from Ivy League schools. All the candidates were considered talented because of their affiliation with those top universities.

Often, these professionals were told to hire people who were intelligent, great communicators, and had solid social skills, with no guidelines on how to evaluate those qualities, Rivera says. "So they use themselves as a proxy to judge 'is that person going to be good on the job?'" More

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