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Getting Hired is a Popularity Contest

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From the department of endless high school comes more evidence of the importance of fitting in.

Getting hired—and staying employed—really aren’t all that different than finding the right clique. About 43 percent of HR professionals said cultural fit is the most important factor when hiring, according to a recent survey conducted by Beyond.com and Millennial Branding. Grade-point average mattered least.

If only determining that fit was as easy as looking at a number on a transcript. It’s pretty hard to tell if someone is going to do well in cubicle culture or handle deadline pressure from a couple of interviews. Every company has its own idea of its culture, but no matter where you are interviewing, it’s a safe bet that appearing upbeat and likable will boost your odds of getting hired. Managers in the survey said they look for top three attributes in candidates: a positive attitude (84%) communication skills (83%) and an ability to work as a team (73%).

And if they get it wrong, companies may be more willing to fire than to wait for the employee to find another crowd. Zappos has gotten a lot of press for its policy of paying employees to quit if they are unhappy. RiotGames, a video game maker in California, offers new hires $25,000 to quit in 60 days if the job isn’t working. Here’s how that company explains its policy: “If someone gags on the unique flavor of our culture, they’d be doing themselves and the company a disservice to hang on just for the paycheck.”

Got it.

It’s human nature for people to like–and therefore, hire–people who are similar to themselves. It’s just easier to relate to them. But the idea that teams should be culturally aligned seems to be gaining traction.

Of course, cultural values such as integrity or mission are important for all employees to share. If an employee finds a CEO dishonest or objects to how a company earns revenue or handles clients, it is going to be a pretty bumpy tenure. And managers need to trust their employees.

But there are risks in hiring people who are too much like ourselves. Different points of view can stimulate creativity. If everyone on a team sees the world through the same lens, you can quickly stifle innovation. What’s more, a lot of what is casually called culture is about having things in common, from interests to skills. If a manger is highly data-driven, he may tend to hire people who are also metric-obsessed over those who are more creative or people-focused. Over time, teams can become lopsided.

No one wants to work with angry or difficult people. Likability is important, but it needs to be backed up with skills, talent, and work ethic. In a highly competitive global economy, good grades falling out of favor doesn’t seem to me a good trend. It’s one thing if the football captain peaks in high school, but no one wants the economy to be past its prime.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.