Tag: hiring

Is Pedigree and Old Boy network really relevant in the 21st Century?

Is Pedigree and Old Boy network really relevant in the 21st Century?

Not sure how to categorise this post, it’s an amalgamation of a critique of the social stratification that we witness today with a fair amount of my experiences interspaced and viewed through the lenses of a book, Pedigree. I have always held that Pedigree and education from Elite Institutions are a bit overrated and are not necessarily an indication of capability or skill, but rather of discipline and or perseverance.

Prior to my arrival in the United Kingdom eleven years ago, I had a very different picture of effort and success in the world. I assumed that professional success was not just a possibility, but a certainty if you were skilled and worked hard. Especially, after you read things like the 10000-hour rule (Outliers) or the 67 Principles (The success principle). Nothing seemed to be able to stop the onslaught of hard-working smart people’s success. My personal yardstick was, of course, me. After all, here I am in the heart of London building the very first meta-search engine for betting odds (in the UK) leading a team across 3 continents.

Imagine a tortoise roll aka Flashbak scenes from Masala movies:

I did not have the “Blue Blood” in me, I graduated with an Electronics degree from a Tier 2 University in South India. To make it abundantly clear, the first time I had come to the state capital, Madras (now Chennai) was to enrol in IEEE student chapter and the second was to apply for a passport! So, you can guess my “exposure”, the fact that I even got to know that something called IITs exists is a testament to the wonderful Teachers I had during my school days. Anyway, from there, it took me 3 different jobs (one of which was for Paypal), my own entrepreneurship journey and a successful exit to hitch this stint with EasyOdds/MarCol group.

Going through this and seeing my peers with a similar trajectory, I could be forgiven for thinking this is how success looks, a slow march with perseverance and dedication and “years under the belt”. This is not just me, but most people I knew did think that the recipe for success is the long game. This couldn’t be far from the truth. We have been oblivious to the fact that two classes exist in any workforce, the elites and the others! I started noticing that people with degrees from “fancy institutions” climb the ladder much faster or even start from a higher step. Now, Rivera starts her book by saying,

“Most Americans believe that hard work- not blue blood- is the key to success.”

Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.

Rivera is a Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and has received her Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University. She has spent around a year researching her book by working in the HR department of a major New York City consulting firm.

Rivera starts her book by discussing and pinpointing the macroeconomic environment that sets “elite” students from “other” students. She uses a lot of data analysis throughout her book, (some of them went right over my head). The book is categorized as “vocational guidance” on Amazon! However, the book doesn’t directly guide you to secure an “elite” job! So, do not bother. Instead, the book is a critique of the hiring process and reveals the actions of those responsible for hiring. The book’s thesis is “that the way in which elite employers define and evaluate “merit” in hiring strongly tilts the playing field for America’s highest paying jobs toward children from socioeconomically privileged backgrounds.”

However, in her last chapter, she makes sure to show that the hiring process isn’t completely rigged and that some candidates from less affluent backgrounds were able to break the code and get hired while other candidates with affluent backgrounds failed to get hired. But, as stated earlier this is rare and not the norm. The author does a really good job by chronologically taking the reader through the steps of the hiring process, “from the initial decision (of firms) of where to post job advertisements to the final step, when the hiring committee meets to make final offer and rejection decisions.”

Rivera does a good job of explaining earlier in the book how the reproduction of elites starts from a very young age during college and that “Today, the transition of economic privilege from one generation to the next tends to be indirect. It operates largely through the education system” (3) She follows up by using the sociological research conducted by Alexandra Radford in which she shows that many top achieving high school valedictorians “from lower-income families do not apply to prestigious, private, four year universities because the high price tags associated with these schools. Illustrating how money and cultural know-how work together, some who would have qualified for generous financial aid packages from these institutions did not apply because they were unaware of such opportunities. Other had difficulty obtaining the extensive documentation required for financial aid applications.” (5) Since these students are unfortunately unable to apply to “elite” schools they are also unable to apply to “elite” EPS firms that only hire from a select number of IVY league schools. Therefore, as one of the attorneys said in the opening of the second chapter, “There are many smart people out there. We just refuse to look at them”. Why? Because they primarily hire from a select number of schools which are accessible to a select few. Therefore, the universities are the “engines of inequality” as she says in her book. Rivera points out that there are two methods of allocating high status career opportunities. One is the contest system, in which competition is open to all and success is based on competence. The other is the sponsored system in which existing elites select the winners, either directly or through third parties. The system in the U.S is a combination of both models according to Rivera. However, what is better for a society’s institutions? A combination of both models or strictly a contest system? It seems quite clear that a contest system would certainly drive the most deserving and competent students to the jobs that suit them. However, that’s unfortunately not the case as earlier stated through the attorney. Does this not seem like an irony in age where shareholder maximization seems like the first commandment of firms today? It certainly is. Where is the efficiency? It’s traded off for the sake of job “fit” and “polish”. According to Rivera’s study more than half of the evaluators of applicants regarded fit “as the most important criterion at the job interview stage, rating it above analytical skills and polish.” But what is fit?

According to Rivera’s sample of evaluators they defined and measured fit saying that it means they have a similarity in “play styles- how applicants preferred to conduct themselves outside the office- rather than in their work styles or job skills. In particular, they looked for matches in leisure pursuits, backgrounds, and self-presentation styles between candidates and firm employees (including themselves)” (137). This definition of fit unfortunately tilts the hiring process in favor of the already dominant elite while rejecting the competent and hardworking yet “unfit” candidates. Furthermore, it results in a monoculture where homphily is the norm and widely practiced. Yes, fit might generate stronger cohesion among employees, but a diverse number of competent employees from diverse backgrounds can certainly be healthier for society by motivating employees to work harder while increasing efficiency. Another metric that Rivera mentioned was Polish. Now what is Polish? Well, according to Rivera “interviewers in my study initially had difficult explaining to me how they recognized and assessed polish during job interviews.” (171) One Banker went so far that she likened polish to pornography, laughingly saying, “You kind of know it when you see it”. The general idea of Polish is that firms want to recruit employees who can maintain a reputable, luxurious and elite picture of the firm they represent. One consultant Natalie said, “In an ideal world, you have people who are folks that you want to throw in front of a client, that you feel are professional and mature. People that you know can walk into a room full of people who are twice their age ad be able to command it with self-confidence, but not too much self-confidence.” (170) Although, this might certainly be a good thing for a hiring firm it might also be a bias for those with families that have executives in the family and have taught their children to deal with executives and clients growing up. Therefore, besides the fact that polish is very arbitrary and can lead to a monoculture it can certainly lead to inequality as well.

In conclusion, I found this book to be great at illustrating all the short comings of the interviewing process at Elite Professional Service firms and that it unfortunately leads to more inequality in society. Furthermore, as Rivera suggests, firms needs to widen their interviewing scope not just for the sake of candidates, but even for the sake of hiring smarter and more competent students. They must stress the importance of having grades over institutional prestige and culture extra-circulars. In addition, to handing the interviewing process to more professional interviewers who can structure the interviews and detach themselves from the arbitrary metrics currently used.

References, Further Reading:

Old Boys Network


Pedigree in Tech


Insight: In the Silicon Valley start-up world, pedigree counts – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-startup-connections-insight-idUSBRE98B15U20130912

Does the startup world have a Pedigree problem – https://qz.com/work/1695042/does-the-startup-world-have-a-pedigree-problem

The 10000 hours rule