The Likeability Factor in Hiring

I was talking with some friends last night, two of whom do recruiting for their agencies. Carla, who works in education, said, “I know within the first five minutes whether an applicant will ‘fit in’ to my company.” Judy pointed out that making snap judgements about a person’s ability to “fit in” means most often that recruiters will hire people like them.

Their words resonated with me. I remember being told, “I’m not allowed to play with colored kids” when I first came to the U.S. and went to an all-white school.  I remember returning to India as a teenager and trying to fit in. But I never quite did. I also remember vividly the young couple who hired me for my first “office” job in their law firm when I returned to the U.S. as an adult. Fortunately, they looked beyond the fact that I had a strange accent, looked different, and certainly had no clue on how to interact in an office environment.

When I left the firm a year later to accept another position, one co-worker told me, “When you first came, we thought you were a bit odd. But after we got to know you, we realized you were no different, and we have become very fond of you.” I was definitely the lucky one.

Unfortunately, numerous studies point to the same trend: that recruiters tend to hire the applicants with whom they have the most in common. The phenomenon was referred to in a Harvard Business School study as “likeability bias.”  (Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks, Harvard Business Review, June 2005.)

This preference for individuals who look and think like the recruiter is particularly troublesome in an arena where prospective employees come from countries where there are vast differences in workplace norms.  What is accepted and welcome in one country may be taboo in another.

While having a homogenous team might mean that everyone gets along, studies have repeatedly shown that diverse teams are more innovative and higher achieving. Individuals with different backgrounds and experiences bring new ideas and practices that improve the ability of the team to think “outside the box.”

A person may not immediately appear “likeable” but may still be the best candidate for the job. While training in avoiding bias is helpful, having diverse hiring teams is one of the best ways to ensure that a potentially outstanding employee is not sidestepped due to the “likeability” factor.

But what can a potential employee do to get their foot in the door? What makes a person “likeable?” More importantly, if not a native born charmer, what can they do about it?

  1.      Smile.  Americans love smiles. A smile tells us that you are open and eager to engage with us. While in some countries, a serious and professional demeanor is of the utmost importance, here we want to know that you are pleasant to be around. We’re going to be spending a lot of time with you after all.
  2.      Listen. You may want to launch into a perfectly articulated list of accomplishments before you forget them. But stop and listen first. Hear not only what the interviewer is asking, but note also his or her tone and demeanor, and try to mirror it. Take the time to consider the question, and respond with a thoughtful answer that draws on your skills and background.
  3. Research the position and job requirements. Yes, an interviewer will tend to like you more if you demonstrate that you were interested enough in the position to spend some time researching it.
  4. If you know who will be interviewing you, learn a little about the person. Do you have any interests in common? If so, you might want to mention it. Studies show that common interests immediately make you more likeable.
  5. Share a little about yourself. How do you differ from other applicants? It is your unique interests and quirks that make you stand out from other applicants.  And the more an interviewer, employer, or co-worker knows about you outside of work, the more they are likely to find you an agreeable co-worker.
  6. Lastly, have fun. Life is short. Don’t take yourself or others too seriously!

Kamana Mathur is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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John Burton

Great article! In my organization and I’m sure in most others there is a big focus on recognizing and welcoming diversity. However, deeply ingrained mindsets are difficult to change and to our detriment we’re probably making many hiring decisions based on that likeability factor.

Kamana Mathur

Thanks John. It’s hard when you’re dealing with basic human nature. All we can do is be aware of it and make a conscious effort to avoid hasty judgements based on pre-conceived notions and biases

Laura Wilcox

“It is your unique interests and quirks that make you stand out from other applicants.” Well said! These are all excellent interview tips for any industry.