Does Culture Fit Create Bias in University Recruiting?
March 7, 2018
Do cultural similarities between employers and applicants really influence employers’ hiring decisions, particularly in university recruiting?
Lauren Rivera’s study, “Hiring as Cultural Matching,” published in the American Sociological Review, 2012, demonstrates the extent to which culture is used as a vehicle and measure of labor market sorting—the way that the market sorts supply and demand with respect to available workers’ skills through processes such as hiring. Hiring is more than just skills sorting (the ability to organize items into groups based on common characteristics); it is a process of cultural matching as well (colloquially known as “culture fit”) between candidates, interviewers, and employers. Often, “culture fit” outweighs concerns about productivity when employers hire new candidates. For example, in an article published by Business News Daily, Lauren Kolbe suggests, “An employee who is not aligned with the culture and is not committed to living it can wreak havoc pretty quickly, even if they bring a great deal of skill and experience to their craft.”
However, Rivera hypothesized that hiring for culture fit within university recruiting may expose information on socioeconomic inequalities and occupational disparities on a broader level. Through her study, which focused on university recruiting at top-tier firms in the most prestigious industries (she doesn’t name them), she found this to be true.
Elite professional service firms are rich grounds for analyzing the idea of “culture fit” in hiring. Entry-level professional positions often require a degree from a “distinguished” university—Google, for example, has hired more than 31,000 employees from the top 100 schools, with IBM, Microsoft, Deloitte, Boeing, and Apple each hiring more than 10,000 employees from the 100 most highly ranked schools. In addition, most of these employers source the majority of their applicants directly through university career centers instead of through more diverse and informal networks. According to NACE’s 2017 Recruiting Benchmark Survey, 97.9% of responding employers identified college career centers as an on-campus resource, and employers attended an average of 41 career fairs that year. Applicant pools therefore are already pre-screened, minimizing many structural and status differences between applicants.
The standard in university recruiting is for firms to identify a set of target universities. These are often selected through national prestige rankings such as U.S. News’ “Best Colleges,” where current team members graduated from, or organizational politics (perhaps someone’s boss graduated from a certain school). Students who don’t attend these target universities are then ruled out at this stage of the hiring process as a result of where they go to school. Once interviews begin, candidates’ interpersonal skills are tested. While knowledge of the field plays a notable role in the hiring process, Rivera also found that employers wanted to add someone to their company whom they’d want to hang out with and who was similar to them. In other words, who was a “culture fit.”
According to Rivera’s study, the most common things that employers looked for during job interviews were similarities in hobbies, experiences, and self-presentation styles. Since hiring is a matching process that links organizational characteristics, job demands, and applicants’ skills, interviews are crucial components of the hiring process because they allow employers to establish subjective impressions of candidates. Interviewers actively and intentionally used themselves as models for an ideal candidate because they’d been successful in their careers, so they assumed that someone similar to them would be as well. Similarity, it has been found, is a strong driver of attraction and evaluation in micro-social settings, and culture fit is not just sources of liking, but also the underlying basis on which merit is evaluated. Subjective impressions of culture fit are particularly weighty in one-on-one settings where interactions are personalized, enduring, and based on more information than what is visible. Most strikingly, perceived similarity is believed to be more important than actual similarity in the decision to hire.
So what should HR professionals take away from all of this? In short, that culture fit influences hiring decisions whether consciously or not, and there is no quick answer to this. However, if you’re interested in learning about ways that your company can improve its recruiting practices to overcome cultural bias, we will be exploring this topic further at HR Uncubed and encourage you to join us there.
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