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The Surprisingly Casual Way Elite Firms Hire Employees

Law, banking, and consulting firms have their choice of some of the smartest people in the world—but what they’re really looking for is someone cool to kick back with (or work until 3 a.m. with).

More accurate than you thought.  

A couple weeks ago, some live-work space called the “Startup Castle” in Silicon Valley was making the rounds on the web as an exemplar of how crazy the tech meritocracy has become. Not only is it a 17,000-square-foot mansion with “luxury rooms to house out-of-town investors”; not only were they seeking people with a “top-class degree or job with a strong math/science requirement”; the list of criteria for potential Startup Castle residents got weirdly specific. The list of don’ts, for example, includes:

  • “Have more than 1 tattoo”
  • “Have ever attended more than 1 protest”
  • “Listen to songs with explicit lyrics more than once a day.”

So be sure to save “Hit ‘Em Up” for when you really need it, like a double espresso.

But maybe the Startup Castle isn’t so weird; maybe it’s how the world works, or at least a very small but very influential slice of the world.

That’s how the world of law firms, investment banks, and consulting firms seems in this great interview that Lauren Rivera did with the Atlantic’s Bouree Lam. Rivera, an associate professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, just published Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Jobs; it’s an in-depth look at how such firms choose the next generation of workers.

And it is, at times, pretty depressing:

I think a lot of what they’re looking for when they’re looking for social skills—or “polish”—is conformity to this particular way of interacting that’s very common in upper-middle-class, upper-class social circles.

[snip]

They’re also looking for a lack of regional accent that the person doing the interview finds distasteful. That definitely varies from interviewer to interviewer. So they’re looking for those class-based kinds of things in additional to the more standard social-skills criteria.

(I’ve written before about how people from the sticks, like myself, tend to lose their accent during the process of obtaining a higher education; this is a very good example of why.)

Talking with Lam, Rivera describes how firms look for “fit": literally whether the interviewer would like to spend time with the interviewee: “someone you’re looking to shoot the shit with.”

What’s remarkable is how specific it can be. In her work that led up to the book, Rivera captures some vivid instances:

Banker Sandeep (Indian, male) illustrated how shared experiences could  yield  excitement  prior to interviews when evaluating mock candidate Sarah. Scanning the résumé, his face lit up as he saw Sarah’s extracurricular pursuits. “She  plays squash. Anyone who plays squash I love,” he said smiling, and immediately ranked her first.

(I still don’t really know what squash is.)

For example, “white-shoe” investment bank HR manager Kelly (white, female), dressed in a buttoned, pastel cardigan and pearls, asserted, “I’d have to pick Blake and Sarah. With his lacrosse and her squash, they’d really get along . . . on the trading floor.”

(I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? “Squash.”)

“He did well on the case and was very articulate. He’s a very interesting guy with a good story. But I think he’s too intellectual for  [FIRM]. You know, he is very into 18th-century literature and avant-garde film. . . . [sighed] I don’t think he’d be a good fit.” The candidate was not invited back.

What’s fascinating, and kind of disconcerting, about Rivera’s paper is that there’s not one particular personality being sought. “Firms sought surface-level (i.e. demographic) diversity in applicant pools but deep-level (i.e. cultural) homogeneity in new hires,” Rivera writes. But that homogeneity took different forms across firms—for one legal hiring manager at a “scrappy” firm, lacrosse, squash, and crew were evidence that a candidate was not a fit. (Phew.) Athletes had more respect for athletes; Ivy grads for Ivy grads; and so forth. Within industries that pride themselves on efficiency, research, and detail, it’s surprisingly random. In fact, it seems more random in some ways than the kind of gatekeeping Rivera found when she researched what doormen are looking for when they let people into nightclubs.

And, in short, it looks a lot like the Startup Castle. That particular institution was briefly the butt of many jokes, but perhaps those jokes were more uncomfortable than we’d like to admit, as the Startup Castle simply made explicit (and with its name, almost metaphorical) what we’re all too aware is implicit, and common.

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