Cultural Capital and meritocratic circularity

Lauren A. Rivera has a new book out titled “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.” Coverage of the book (The Atlantic, New York Times) indicates that the author interviewed hiring managers at elite firms to understand how they made their hiring decisions. Of interest to me in this post is Rivera’s writing about “cultural fit.”

Across cultures and industries, managers strongly prize “cultural fit” — the idea that the best employees are like-minded. One recent survey found that more than 80 percent of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top hiring priority.

When done carefully, selecting new workers this way can make organizations more productive and profitable. But cultural fit has morphed into a far more nebulous and potentially dangerous concept. It has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with. In the process, fit has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.


Crucially, though, for these gatekeepers, fit was not about a match with organizational values. It was about personal fit. In these time- and team-intensive jobs, professionals at all levels of seniority reported wanting to hire people with whom they enjoyed hanging out and could foresee developing close relationships with. Fit was different from the ability to get along with clients. Fundamentally, it was about interviewers’ personal enjoyment and fun. Many, like one manager at a consulting firm, believed that “when it’s done right, work is play.”

To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. “The best way I could describe it,” one member of a law firm’s hiring committee told me, “is like if you were on a date. You kind of know when there’s a match.” Many used the “airport test.” As a managing director at an investment bank put it, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in Minneapolis in a snowstorm with them?”

To state the obvious, this is so-called cultural capital at play. To also state the obvious, this sort of thing advantages those from rich backgrounds over those from poor backgrounds regardless of their level of education and ability.

What’s interesting about this method of selecting candidates is that there is often a viable business justification for it. It’s not pure like-selecting-like cronyism, but rather people who display upper class tastes and behaviors and styles of communication will be more valuable to the company because they will better relate to other people in the company’s management as well as the company’s clients. The degree to which this matters is perhaps overstated, but to the extent that the upper echelon of commerce is about relationships, those that can relate better arguably have more merit, so long as we define merit in terms of how much one adds to the company’s bottom line.

However, there is something very circular about merit so defined. In other contexts, people often write about the non-cognitive “skills” of conducting yourself in a professional manner, but what this really amounts to is conducting yourself in the manner that happens to coincide with upper class norms at this moment in history. Yet, there is nothing objectively superior about the way upper class people prefer to relate to others or upper class tastes more generally.

For instance, in my experience, upper class people prefer styles of communication that are passive, subtle, and often insincere. Acting otherwise in a “professional” environment might make you less valuable because of the disruption it causes, but it only causes disruption because of the way upper class people happen to be. If they were less delicate and adopted other communication norms, such as the more aggressive and blunt ones common among working classes, then there would be no problem. Some object that more aggressive and direct communication is actually inherently less capable of facilitating successful coordination, but counterexamples abound in construction sites, saw mills, and other blue-collar workplaces across the country.

Under these weird meritocratic dynamics, bourgeois characteristics make you more valuable not because they are good characteristics in themselves, but merely because they are bourgeois characteristics, and therefore relatable to the top of the economic hierarchy that directs the resources top spots in top firms are competing to get. This poses obvious problems for social mobility, which is the direction people usually take it, but it poses even deeper problems for the idea of “skills” more generally. Where “skills” refers, not to some freestanding objective ability to produce, but rather to your ability to be chummy and familiar to those with the money, they don’t actually seem to be “skills” in the sense most people imagine the term. Upper crust professionals no longer appear to be geniuses, but instead people who went to boarding school and whose manner of conducting themselves shows it.