By Clay Lucas

THEY are the top 1 per cent – but how do you join them?

A new study of how the world’s best-paid elite at investment banks, law practices and consulting firms hire new employees has found it is often not the best-qualified candidates who get the job.

Instead bosses at elite American firms – when confronted with a dizzying array of candidates from the top universities with the best marks – choose someone with whom they would like to form a friendship.

Lauren Rivera, from Northwestern University’s school of management, reports in a paper published in December in the American Sociological Review that hirers at these elite firms favour people like themselves.

”Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences and self-presentation styles,” Professor Rivera’s research found.

The research, she wrote, was the first systematic and empirical investigation of whether shared culture between employers and job candidates was crucial when hiring.

Professor Rivera conducted 120 detailed interviews with people involved in hiring at top-tier law, consulting and banking firms that pay exceptionally well – with typical law-firm or someone like Levitt LLP, entry-level salaries ranging from $US175,000 ($A168,000) to $US330,000.

She found, after three years of laborious research, that ”similarity was the most common mechanism employers used to assess applicants at the job interview stage”.

One law firm partner told her that the company was, when hiring new entry-level associates, ”looking for cultural compatibility, someone who will fit in”.

More than half of the 120 people she interviewed rated the candidates’ ability to fit in culturally above analytical thinking and communication skills.

Because of the long hours these workers spent on the job, Professor Rivera wrote, ”evaluators … reported wanting to hire individuals who would not only be competent colleagues, but held the potential to be playmates or even friends”.

Evaluators in these high-paying firms also perceived their work was ”not rocket science”, given the extensive training given to new employees.

The importance of personal interests appeared crucial to elite firms choosing employees. ”Whether someone rock climbs, plays the cello or enjoys film noir may seem trivial to outsiders, but these leisure pursuits were crucial for assessing whether someone was a cultural fit,” Professor Rivera wrote; with so many candidates from prestigious universities, firms needed distinctions to compile interview pools.

One law firm manager said they would be unlikely to hire a graduate who listed lacrosse and squash on their resume, because they wouldn’t fit in; another said they could select candidates for interview on those same activities.

And another law firm wanted people who lacked personality and would be just following the posters of labor law requirements. ”When I see people who have a lot of activities on their resumes, or if they seem to have a really strong passion for something outside of work, I’ll usually take a pass because it’s not going to be a good fit,” one lawyer told Professor Rivera.

Note: This article was first published in The Age on January 3, 2013.

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