It’s an open secret that in many workplaces, qualifications and skills alone are not enough to get someone a job, let alone to keep them in it.
But on TikTok, people are being open about the charisma it takes to get a jump on their careers. Young users are calling themselves “personality hires” who shine more for their good vibes and creative energy than for traditional skills in their fields.
But there is not one shared definition of what a “personality hire” means. On the one hand, it seems to be a way for someone to poke fun at their own insecurities around feeling unqualified for a role they were hired for. And many TikTok commenters agree with this assessment. Top comments include “Me talking my way through all my job interviews” and “[Shout out] to the girlies hanging on by their personality.”
But as some other TikTokers explained, it can also be a way to discuss the team-building and collaborative skills that make people want to work with them.
Justin Barish, a 23-year old producer for an ad agency who made a TikTok about being a personality hire, said that to him, it means a professional who keeps work fun and fresh.
“I think the ‘personality hire’ brings something different to the work environment, someone who brings the fun, someone who people want to collaborate with, someone who is easy to work with,” he said.
Barish said personality hires can be misunderstood to be people who are not as focused and as driven as other co-workers, and that sometimes he feels insecure about this perception at his job. But in fact, he believes personality hires “are the people who are actually the best to work with in a group scenario,” and who “are the most capable of being really successful leaders because of how we connect and speak to other co-workers.”
Casie Popkin, a 27-year-old professional at a social media agency, said that identifying as a personality hire doesn’t mean she feels unqualified, either. It means her co-workers recognize her humor and see that her likability is a selling point. It’s about “applauding yourself for not necessarily having a certain level of professionalism with your co-workers, which can be a bad thing if you take it too far. But I think for me, I enjoy turning my co-workers into friends,” she said.
In her TikTok anecdote about feeling like a personality hire, Popkin shared that when her agency asked the icebreaker question, “What’s your favorite fish?” at an all-hands meeting, she responded, “What type of fish is the hot one from ‘Nemo?’” and kicked off a companywide debate about hot cartoon characters.
Popkin said she created the TikTok to release some of her embarrassment about the attention she got over her answer. “I’m not trying to be like, ‘I’m so quirky and cool.’ It’s more just like, ‘I am an embarrassment, but at least my company relishes in that, versus getting mad at me,’” she said.
For Popkin, identifying as a personality hire means you work in an environment where you can bring your sense of humor to work. At her previous job, her co-workers were much older than she was and she doesn’t think her humor translated as well. At her current job, it does.
“I’m a woman in 2022. All I think about is how I’m being perceived,” she said. “[With the TikTok], I think more I was celebrating the fact that I don’t necessarily have to do that at work, because people understand what it is what I’m getting at. That, in and of itself, is a privilege, to work around people who understand me.”
Phyllis Hartman, founder of the human resources company PGHR Consulting, sees a generational difference in why younger people feel more comfortable sharing that they’re the personality hire, but she said she would feel neutral if a job candidate shared this impression with her, as long as they didn’t imply that they lied about who they were.
“If they shared it in a way that said … ‘Yeah, I fooled them and I got hired anyways,’ then I’d be a little bit uncomfortable considering that person for a job, because are they going to do that with me? Are they being genuine?” Hartman said. “If the person says, ‘Well they said they hired me because of my personality,’ well then that’s great and hopefully that’s what they needed and you were being honest about your personality.”
Hiring experts are skeptical that people are hired purely based on personality, but research shows it’s a big factor — and it can be exclusionary.
Daniel Space is a senior human resources business partner for large tech companies who also shares career advice on TikTok. He said he is skeptical of the role personality plays in getting hired.
“In the thousands of debriefs with managers that I’ve had, I’ve never had a manager say, ‘Well they don’t know what they were doing, but they seem really nice,’” Space said. “There is this weird impression that people can either be nice or experienced. Generally speaking, almost everyone is nice, especially during an interview.”
He believes people might identify as a personality hire because they lied or overstated their abilities in the interview process and “fooled the manager,” or because they are actually capable of doing the job but are no longer engaged and are coasting on “being a really nice, friendly person on the team that everyone loves.”
When I explained how Popkin used her personality to spark a companywide discussion, Space said that wasn’t proof of her being a “personality hire,” in his view, but was more about “someone who is unique and really creative and able to engage people by thinking outside the box.”
“If all you are bringing to the team is good energy, then realize you may be causing your team to struggle.”
Space said that his ego would be hurt if he thought he was a personality hire, and he would not go on TikTok to share it. He cautioned that if someone truly believes they are one, they should “please consider the needs of your team. While good energy is important and having a great personality is important, if all you are bringing to the team is good energy, then realize you may be causing your team to struggle,” he said, adding: “Understand the skills that you bring to the company are not just going to be your personality, and you deserve to be thought of as more.”
There is a clear gap between how human resources professionals view the personality hire trend and how TikTokers who identify as personality hires see it. While TikTokers see it as a positive, HR professionals like Space see it as a symptom of impostor syndrome.
“Saying you were only hired for your personality is selling yourself short,” said Gabrielle Woody, a university recruiter for the financial software company Intuit who is also on TikTok. She thinks personality can play a role in getting hired, but would not seal the deal on its own.
“Although I’ve never had to take a personality test for a job application, there are some employers who do use it in their interview process, which is an indicator that personality is a factor in some corporations’ recruiting processes. But I don’t believe it’s the only deciding factor,” she said.
The hard truth: Research backs up the fact that subjective traits like relatability and charm can get people hired. The problem is that when managers hire people based on who they personally like, it excludes people who fall outside that manager’s personal definition of who is cool and likable.
Historically, when it comes to who is a “cultural fit” on a team, what people with hiring power really look for is who is exciting to talk to more than who can do the job best.
Sociologist Lauren Rivera interviewed hiring managers in banking, consulting and law firms for her book “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs.” She found that hiring managers ranked gut feelings of “chemistry” and “fit” above academic accomplishments, professional qualifications or previous experience in terms of importance, and would turn down candidates because of subjective factors like their enthusiasm, energy and perceived level of polish. Making a hiring manager feel “smitten,” “fired up” or “blown away” could sway someone to hire a person more than that candidate’s analytical skills.
As one consultant told Rivera about a candidate named Will, “Will quickly became everyone’s best friend. That’s what I call a good fit. But quite frankly, his case performance wasn’t the best. But because his personality and presence were so strong, I forwarded him on [to second-round interviews].”
But as Rivera puts it in her book, hiring by personality created unequal advantages for candidates who came from the same white, wealthy backgrounds as the majority of managers in the elite firms she studied. Getting someone to like you can be easier when you share similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. “The use of fit ― although couched in evaluators’ desires for playmates and fun at work and not explicitly tied to class ... ― created informal barriers for candidates who were different from the majority of the firm’s employees,” Rivera wrote.
In other words, hiring for personality can overlook what should matter most: someone’s capabilities.
Not everyone has the freedom to identify as a personality hire.
Both Popkin and Barish said their employers enjoyed their TikToks about being personality hires. But they both acknowledged that could be because they work in creative fields that allow them to bring their full selves to work.
Race plays a role in who feels comfortable identifying openly as a personality hire, too. If you scroll long enough through the “personality hire” TikTok videos, you will notice that there are very few nonwhite people, and virtually no Black people, identifying that way.
“If I admitted to being a personality hire on the internet, I’d be afraid I could lose my job.”
Critics who have also noticed this point out that white privilege is why mostly white TikTokers feel all right sharing that they’re a personality hire. In one top reply to a TikTok from a white woman identifying as a personality hire who used her likability to get the job, a commenter wrote, “STARES IN WOMAN OF COLOR.” The comment has over 6,000 likes.
Ndoata, a 23-year-old engineer based in Florida who asked HuffPost not to disclose her last name, created a TikTok response pointing out the lack of Black personality hires.
According to Ndoata, being a personality hire is typically someone hired because “they’re a good fit for the team socially, but have relatively minimal technical skills.”
She noted that she’s seen no Black people identifying as personality hires, which shows the limits of who gets the freedom to bring their full personality to work.
“Although you cannot get fired for being Black, there are fewer things you can get away with while at work,” Ndoata told HuffPost. “If I admitted to being a personality hire on the internet, I’d be afraid I could lose my job. I think it definitely opens the door to [being] scrutinized.”
The many definitions and perceptions of a personality hire are what make it a fascinating TikTok trend. It’s a joke, but the punchline lands differently depending on how much the truth resonates, and whether the viewer believes it means someone is unqualified or that they are fun to work with. Sparkling wit and a sense of humor can definitely get a job candidate noticed, but in an ideal, fair hiring environment, no manager would hire based solely on that.