June 03, 2015
You’re about to meet with the CEO of a major investment company, hoping to land a job with a six-figure salary. You’re thinking about how to make the best impression of yourself: what to where, how to speak, and even just how firm your handshake should be. Everything could ride on this first impression.
Now stop, and think about this: what does that CEO look like in your mind?
Most likely you imagined a tall, middle-aged white male with Jack Donaghy-esque hair, an expensive suit, and a deep, confident voice. He probably went to an Ivy League school, drinks Scotch, and enjoys high-powered hobbies like sailing and golf.
While “looking the part” shouldn’t be the most important part of getting a job, it often is. A recent Economist article pointed out research that shows 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are at least 6-foot-2, compared to less than four percent of Americans. It also cited a finding from a business school study in which researchers studied voice recordings of 782 male CEOs and found that those with the deepest voices made $187,000 more per year on average.
It’s no surprise that looks and posture influence how people treat you and that men and women who project an aura of confidence can climb the corporate ladder faster. Perhaps those beautiful, bass-voiced CEOs used personal magnetism to negotiate higher paychecks.
Overall, the hiring process is a lot more like a dating service than people think. One book that researched the hiring practices in the nation’s top banks, law firms and management consultancies found that interviewers often evaluated potential hires the same way they would evaluate potential mates: chemistry.
"The best way I could describe it is like if you were on a date. You kind of know when there's a match," one interviewer said.
In the book, "Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs," Lauren Rivera interviewed 120 interviewers at powerful companies to find out what they care most about when they decide who to hire.
In addition to concrete qualities like skills, experience and connections, these gatekeepers cared a lot about the elusive quality of “personal fit.” A potential employee shouldn’t just be right for the job, they should be right for drinks at the bar after the job. He or she needs to have the right personality and interests to get along well with everyone at the company and fit into the corporate culture.
Rivera found that “personal fit” often translated into sharing the same hobbies and the same background as the person interviewing you. This lead to a hiring bias in favor of individuals from high social classes who went to the best schools – since the interviewers were usually individuals from high social classes who went to the best schools. There was also a bias in favor of stereotypically masculine pursuits, although not in favor of men per se.
“Most of the interviewers were athletes, whether they were athletes in college or they liked to run marathons, they did extreme sports on the weekends, or golf on the weekends with their buddies. Drinking was a main thing, too,” explained Rivera in an interview to the Atlantic Monthly.
Even if your life story doesn’t “fit” with the typical life experience of someone at an elite firm, you can adjust that story to meet certain expectations. Rivera explained that interviewers, like television viewers, like to see certain storylines.
“Interviewers prioritize a particular plot line in which the interviewee describes him or herself as a protagonist single-handedly navigating a jungle where they have a goal in mind and they relentlessly pursue this personal passion,” said Rivera.
You want this job so you can pay your rent? Boring. You need to say that you want this job for the same reason that you wanted to climb Mt. Everest on that trip to the Himalayas you took with your Harvard buddies: because of passion.
Getting a job isn’t just about having the right resume. It’s about having the right look and the right cultural background. Even those who don’t come from a high social class can break through if they get into the right schools and if they learn how to present their story the right way. But managers should ask themselves: am I hiring someone based on how well they will do the job, or do I like them because they’re just like me?