We all like to think that when we go for a job interview, that the person sat opposite us is only interested in hiring the best person for the job. We want to believe that it’s talent and abilities that will impress the recruiter and ensure we get the gig.
It’s a noble belief and one that rationally makes perfect sense. The problem is; the decisions about who gets hired are very seldom rational. For instance, there have been studies highlighting how our looks significantly impact our hireability. The prettier you are, the more likely you are to get hired. It’s crazy really, yet true.
We want to hire people just like us
Research also suggests, however, that the interview process is less about finding out about your attractiveness to the organisation as it is about finding out just how similar you are to the hiring manager.
The research reveals that we don’t tend to recruit people with the same strengths as ourselves - a so called social comparison bias. So if your strength is having a way with words, you’re more likely to favour a candidate who doesn’t have a similar strength.
Sounds a bit crazy to me, but lets look at the research. Stephen Garcia, from Princeton, asked participants to imagine they were a professor of law, and that they had responsibility for recommending a couple of new candidates to join the faculty.
We like people that aren’t like us
Half of the group were asked to imagine that they themselves had obtained a high number of publications in a range of journals. Participants from this group would tend to recommend candidates with fewer journal publications, albeit in higher quality journals.
The participants in the other group were told to imagine they had obtained relatively few publications, but all of them in high quality journals. You can probably imagine what comes next? They ended up recommending candidates with more publications in lower quality journals.
So in each case they favoured the candidate with the strength not matching their own. So far so interesting, but obviously that was a hypothetical scenario. Does it work equally in a more realistic environment?
Putting it into practice
Participants in the study were instructed to picture themselves in a managerial role in their organisation. The role would come with either a great salary, or significant decision making clout. They were then informed that they would be placed in a recruitment situation whereby they would need to recommend offering a potential recruit a position with great wages, or alternatively great power. Overwhelmingly, participants would recommend that the new recruit be given the opposite to what they themselves had. What’s more, they also suggested that this perk would be central to the self-esteem of the imaginary candidate.
As the researchers concluded:
"At a broader level, the social comparison bias might help partially to explain why some top-notch departments or organisational units lose prestige over time ... Individuals unwittingly fail to reproduce departmental strengths by protecting their personal standing instead of the standing of the broader department."
So it seems that if you want to ensure you get the job, you better ensure you’re sufficiently different to the person interviewing you.