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Conceding Cronyism in the Workplace

To be successful in a job interview, make sure you communicate the right signals

Free mason

This is a source of contention for many workers - and quite rightly so.

A 2011 survey by the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University found that 92% of senior business executives had seen favouritism influence the filling of a job position.

This is not only unfair (and we are hardwired to hate unfairness; Brosnan & De Waal, 2003), it can even be bad for business - several studies have demonstrated the benefits of diversity in the workplace (e.g. Etsy et al., 1995).

In this context, it surely behooves governments to address the issue; but can they do anything?

In the UK, there is a semi-governmental department tasked with using psychology to help get people back into work. The Behavioural Insights Team (colloquially known as The Nudge Unit) has, among other things, rather smartly applied behavioural science principles to the issue of unemployment.

If anyone can help break psychological barriers and get people into jobs, it’s them.

And yet, of the non-junior employees listed on their website (that is, Senior Analyst and above), a significant proportion of them - according to LinkedIn - fulfill at least one of these three cronyism criteria: privately educated; Oxbridge educated; simply moved there from another government department.

In fact, the proportion is as significant as it gets - 100%.

When one of the world’s most psychologically-aware government departments is impotent to prevent cronyism, it seems futile to expect that these unfair hiring practices will go away any time soon.

If job seekers want to break into the upper echelons of society, they will need to play the game on its own terms.

So what is going on?

The psychological principle at play here is propinquity, which posits that people are attracted to that which is psychologically close to them.

One experiment found that people are more likely to give a dime to a stranger for the phone box if the two people are dressed similarly (Emswiller et al., 1971). Likewise, people are more likely to donate to a charitable appeal if it highlights a victim as being of the same nationality as the recipient (Kogut & Ritov, 2007); and people are more distressed at seeing a person (seemingly) get an electric shock when they share traits and values (Krebs, 1975).

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as social animals we tend to prefer those in our own clan. For example, one study (Jones & Rachlin, 2006) asked subjects to rank 100 people they knew in terms of how closely related they were to them, and then asked how they would split a given sum of money between them - the amount given correlated positively with relatedness to the person. Secondly, we intuitively prefer that which is familiar since it is easier to cognitively process; even Chinese ideographs are preferred if they have been seen before (Zajonc, 1968).

Ultimately, we are hardwired to be attracted to that which is similar and familiar. In terms of employment, this means that high-powered jobs often involve cliques who tend only to hire people of the same set, on the basis of non-conscious signals.

Russell Brand made an astute point. In one of his podcasts, he said of the British parliament, “You’ll notice that it’s all made out of leather and wood and stuff. That’s so if you’ve not grown up surrounded by leather and wood, and you go in there, you go, ‘Oh my god! This place is made of leather and wood! I’ll never fit in!’ But if you grew up in places made of leather and wood (like Eton or Harrow), then you go into old leather-and-wood-land and you think, ‘I should be here. This is leather and wood, just like I’ve always been surrounded by.’”

A person will not be invited to tea at Buckingham Palace if they butter their bread with the shellfish knife; and likewise, you may not be accepted into a job of high socioeconomic status if you do not ape the gestures, expressions, and vocal cues of those who are already there.

Indeed, a paper in Psychological Science found that people of low and high socioeconomic status could be accurately recognized on the basis of their body language alone (Kraus & Keltner, 2009); and a study by Anderson and Shackleton (1990) found not only that interviewers’ evaluations of job candidates were influenced by body language, but that evaluations correlated strongly with ratings of similarity to self. In support of this, it has been found that American interviewers have more positive evaluations of candidates who have American, rather than French, accents (Deprez-Sims & Morris, 2010).

So, if you are applying for a swanky job, make sure you “My Fair Lady” yourself up a bit beforehand and communicate the signs and signals of that role’s set.