Compatible, not just capable

The Life: In an employment market in which many first-time employees relocate for work, offices are becoming surrogate families and social communities.

At a recent job interview at Summit Partners, a private equity firm in Boston in the United States, an applicant was asked: "If you could pick one person to play you in a movie, who would it be?"

An audit staff applicant at the New York accounting firm Ernst & Young was asked: "What are the top five cities you want to go to and why?" And an online magazine asked an editor: "Where do you vacation in the summer?"

Job interviews are becoming like first dates. Glassdoor, the employment site, has collected 285,000 questions asked by hiring managers and the following four rank among last year's 50 most common, although they have little to do with work: what's your favourite movie? What's your favourite website? What's the last book you read for fun? What makes you uncomfortable?

Over the past couple of years, Scott Dobroski, a spokesman for Glassdoor, says the site has found "a significant rise in questions asked about cultural fit".

In the December issue of the American Sociological Review, Lauren Rivera, a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, concludes that companies are making hiring decisions "in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners".

Ms Rivera found that formerly off-topic questions have become central to the hiring process. "Whether someone rock climbs, plays the cello or enjoys film noir may seem trivial," she wrote. "But these leisure pursuits were crucial for assessing someone as a cultural fit."

As a result, Ms Rivera argues, "employers don't necessarily hire the most skilled candidates".

The phrase "cultural fit" may summon up images of old boys' clubs and social connections, but it is important to human resources professionals. A cooperative, creative atmosphere can make workdays more tolerable and head off problems before they begin. "I used to work for an e-commerce company that spent a lot of time refining its culture," says Mercedes Douglas, now head of recruiting at Kikin, an internet search start-up.

"I hired someone as a manager and it created a lot of tension because he didn't fit in. People tried to alienate him because they weren't interested in him as a friend," she says.

And it also goes the other way. "I once hired a woman who really didn't have the right background or experience for the job, but who I hit it off with during the interview," says Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, a marketing executive at News Corp. "And because we got along so well, I was able to train her easily and she ended up doing great things for us."

Especially in this slow economy, more employers are asking "Star Trek or Star Wars?" (as a programmer was recently asked by an employer) because fit is believed to be a strong predictor of employee retention.

The longer employees stay around, the more companies save in hiring and on-boarding costs. For instance, the online retailer Zappos offers new employees who are struggling US$4,000 (Dh14,692) to quit after a week's work, rather than waste resources to train someone who doesn't gel with the group.

The sandwich chain Pret A Manger even goes so far as to have potential employees work for one day, after which they're either voted in or out by the existing team. Applicants who don't get along with others are paid for their time and asked to leave.

Mr Dobroski reports that job seekers cite company culture as their second-highest priority, "almost tied with salary".

In an employment market in which many first-time employees relocate for work, offices are becoming surrogate families and social communities. New hires want secret Santa gift exchanges, karaoke nights and colleagues who share their values.

"These trends are being driven by millennials because they care about culture," says Dan Schawbel, the author of Me: 2.0. "Research shows that millennials typically stay at a job for about two years - and they have different priorities.

"They'd rather have meaningful work over more pay, or work for a company that gives back or cares about the environment. They want a culture that's less hierarchical, more flexible and more understanding of difference because millennials are the most diverse generation."

* Bloomberg BusinessWeek