Chemistry. It's a word that gets used a lot when talking about human relationships; in the workplace, with dating and even as we discuss the makeup of athletic teams. But does chemistry have a place in the conversation when it comes to hiring? And can we define it? 

We certainly all have times when we describe a co-worker, colleague, boss, underling, or job candidate with sentiments such as "We get along really well,” or “We just click.” 

Be careful with chemistry

David Lyman of  Minneapolis-based executive search and strategic consulting firm LymanDoran says companies need to be careful chemistry doesn’t overshadow other important elements when making hires, particularly when it comes to choosing an executive leader.

“We want organizations to understand the difference between chemistry and cultural fit,” says Lyman, who was a Senior Client Partner with Korn/Ferry International before partnering with Libby Doran in 2010. “Wanting to have a beer with someone is great, but whether a candidate resonates with your organization’s values and culture is a better predictor of success.”

Culture and values aren’t as subjective as chemistry, adds Lyman. He says they can be articulated and interviewed for

The company maintains that successful searches - and hires - incorporate a crisply defined set of requisite skills and experiences, culturally aligned and performance-focused competencies, and organizational values, and that those elements should be in focus throughout the hiring process. 

recruiting conference I attended had a breakout session on this very topic, and one of the hiring managers in the audience stated during the subsequent Q & A session, "Chemistry can be in the mix, but shouldn’t be the determining factor for a hire. The best acquirers of talent get beyond 'clicking' with candidates, and stay true to their organization’s needs."

Another said, "I think chemistry is very important in the hiring process. People want to work with people they can get along with, connect with and so on."

Bringing a beer into the discussion

Let's go back to something that David Lyman said. He stated that alignment of cultures and values between a candidate and an organization is a better predictor of eventual success on the job than whether you want to have a beer with them. 

Back in December of 2012 I wrote this piece in Staffing Talk citing a then-new study that found it's just as important, if not more so, for a job candidate to have the same tastes, background and after-work activities as the interviewer, and that those factors trump actual job skills. 

The study, titled "Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms," was done by Northwestern University management and organizations professor Lauren Rivera.

Rivera, who has a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard, spent two years interviewing 120 professionals involved in hiring. These hiring professionals were told to find people who were intelligent, great communicators, and had solid social skills. In other words, their marching orders were ostensibly to find and hire people who were just like them, but with no clear guidelines on how to measure and/or evaluate those qualities.

"Of course employers are looking for people who have the baseline of skills to effectively do the job," Rivera told the American Sociological Association. "But, beyond that, employers really want people who they will bond with, who they will feel good around, who will be their friend and maybe even their romantic partner. As a result, employers don't necessarily hire the most skilled candidates."

Two sides of the same coin?

Let's not get too far off topic with the whole "likability" thing though. Do you think wanting to hang out with someone after work, liking them in other words, is the same thing as having good chemistry with them?

I don't necessarily see chemistry and likeability as the same thing. 

Case in point, I had a former strategic partner in my communications consulting business who I didn't particularly "like." We never socialized after hours, or even during work much, and didn't share the same taste and views on virtually anything. But he was a great yin to my yang, and we made a terrific team and did lots of really good client work together. So we had great chemistry. 

What's that smell?

Speaking of chemistry, there may be some science at work here in ways we're not fully aware of. More research from Northwestern University suggests that humans pick up infinitesimal scents that affect what we think of someone. 

"We evaluate people every day and make judgments about who we like or don't like," said Wen Li, a post-doctoral fellow in the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "We may think our judgments are based only on various conscious bits of information, but our senses also may provide subliminal perceptual information that affects our behavior." 

Minute amounts of odors elicited salient psychological and physiological changes that suggest that humans get much more information from barely perceptible scents than previously realized.

"In general, people tend to be dismissive of human olfaction and discount the role that smell plays in our everyday life," said Jay Gottfried, assistant professor of neurology at Feinberg. "Our study offers direct evidence that human social behavior is under the influence of miniscule amounts of odor, at concentrations too low to be consciously perceived, indicating that the human sense of smell is much keener than commonly thought."

So next time you say you have great chemistry with a colleague or candidate, it may be scientifically accurate. And conversely, if you say you think someone stinks, well, that may be literally true as well. 

What do you think? Does chemistry have a place in the hiring process? Is chemistry the same as likability? 

Tags: The hiring process, Korn/Ferry, Chemistry, Likeability, Hiring factors, Northwestern University, David Lyman, LymanDoran, Dr. Lauren Rivera, Wen Li