Why Hiring For Culture Fit Reinforces Unconscious Bias

“Culture fit” is a loaded term that has made its way into many organizations’ hiring practices. 

At one point, “fit” was hailed as a useful heuristic in finding the best candidates. Now, we know better. Cultural fit is more often used as a way to exclude people, as an out when organizations understand they can’t just say, “We want people like us working here.”

Margaret Lee, UX Director at Google, sums it up well. In an ideal world, culture fit would refer to whether a candidate and hiring manager are in alignment regarding the company’s values. In most cases, however, trying to achieve culture fit simply gives power to the conscious and unconscious biases all of us carry around. The result in hiring is a homogenous organization.

In this post, we explore how hiring for culture fit reinforces unconscious biases, and then we’ll consider some of the better approaches to hiring.

Culture Fit and Beer: Where Two Bad Ideas Intersect

The beer test is a common marker of a candidate’s fit for a job: “Would I want to have a beer with this person?” This happens all the time in U.S. politics, and it’s a rubric that some hiring managers still adhere to.

Does a good business analyst or a CMO need to be a good beer buddy, too? Of course not, logic tells us. Still, illogical thoughts like these can become the deciding factor when a hiring round comes down to two people. Over time, that preference undermines well-intentioned attempts by the organization to be inclusive.

Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix, offers a better approach: Embrace the notion that many different types of people can get the job done. 

McCord, who now advises startups and entrepreneurs, gives the example of a programmer who didn’t quite fit the Silicon Valley mold of a software developer. McCord describes this person as “buttoned up,” but notes that in his spare time the developer had been building an app for Netflix. That’s what got him the job there.

At first, McCord wasn’t sure whether the developer could thrive in Netflix’s culture. “I did wonder how he’d fit in with the high-powered team he was joining; I hoped it wouldn’t burn him out,” she admits.

Five years later, that buttoned-up engineer — whose name is Anthony Park — was named Netflix’s VP of engineering, a role he held for six years. “He’s proof that organizations can adapt to many people’s styles,” McCord writes.

A Lack of Objective Culture Fit Metrics

Culture fit is open to interpretation, which makes it a flawed heuristic. If culture fit is to be useful as a hiring technique — and not perpetuate biases — it needs to use objective metrics, says Mel Hennigan, VP of people at Symplicity Corp.

A first step, Hennigan suggests, is for hiring managers to describe company cultures in qualitative terms like “low structure” or “high autonomy with a complex matrix.” These descriptors don’t inherently exclude diverse skills and abilities.

Further, gut decisions such as “I’d have a beer with this person” aren’t just exclusive. They’re bad business decisions. Organizational psychologist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says hiring teams should use scientific assessments and digital talent technologies when hiring people. That’s what scrubs human bias from the equation.

But so many organizations still rely on unstructured job interviews, which Chamorro-Premuzic calls a “weak predictor of future job performance.” It also biases decisions toward notions of “culture fit.” 

A better approach is to use AI or machine-learning algorithms. Unlike humans, tech can learn to disregard or even unlearn categories such as gender, age and race.

new job, hiring and employment concept - international team of recruiters with tablet computers having interview with female employee at office

Culture Impact Instead of Culture Fit

Successful candidates are those who align with an organization’s core values. This is very different from fitting into a corporate culture, explains Chris Carosella, CEO of the honor society Beta Gamma Sigma.

Company culture affects employee engagement, which has to do with retention, productivity and financial gain. While only 34 percent of employees may be engaged at work, you cannot fix this by hiring more of the same types of people, Carosella says. Far better is to hire people who bring diverse genders, ideas, ethnicities, experiences, age ranges and backgrounds to the company. 

Carosella tells of how she was hired by a Fortune 10 company as head of marketing despite not having much marketing department experience. Based on her sales and operations experience in the field, the hiring manager assessed the impact she would have on the company rather than judging specifically how her experience matched the role requirements.

Values Alignment Instead of Culture Fit

The tech sector is one of the most maligned for its tendency to perpetuate a homogenous workforce. Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity & belonging at Atlassian, calls this “brogrammer” culture. 

“Floors littered with Nerf darts… video-game-and-beer-fueled team events… the expectation that everyone is available to work until 7pm… those are common manifestations of ‘brogrammer’ culture,” Blanche explains.

The subtext of such a culture is that if you’re not a “young, straight, white male,” you probably shouldn’t work here. The unwanted consequence, Blanche says, is this may not represent the true sentiments of the people working at the company. 

The way around this is to replace culture fit with values alignment, Blanche says. This is what Atlassian started doing three years ago. They’ve ditched interviewing for cultural fit in favor of assessing a candidate’s values. 

After all, people can share values but have different personalities. Over time, an organization will become more diverse in personalities while being aligned by values. 

Two Businesswomen Shaking Hands In Lobby Of Modern Office

Culture Add Rather Than Fit

Having a company culture is not a bad thing. Hiring for fit can be, though. That’s why it’s better to hire for culture add, which Alex Moore, director of talent acquisition at management consulting and IT services firm Credera, says will lead to an innovative and resilient culture.

Moore says candidates who can add something to the company’s culture bring a mix of skill and motivation that will challenge the company’s status quo.

Hiring for culture add means asking the right questions, says DeLisa Alexander, chief people officer and EVP at Red Hat. These questions include: 

  • Will the candidate be the right person for not only current needs but future needs? 
  • Does the person’s purpose align with the organization’s purpose? 
  • Will they be able to embrace the working styles and processes of an organization?

Can Culture Fit Work in Diverse, Inclusive Organizations?

If an organization has already created an inclusive environment, wouldn’t hiring for fit naturally align with inclusion? Not quite. That’s still committing the error of confusing values for culture fit.

Still, it can be useful for such organizations to assess a candidate’s fit. Whether someone is a good fit with a company mustn’t be the judgement of one person, explains Janice Gassam, Ph.D., a diversity and inclusion consultant. Fit only makes sense when a diverse group of colleagues and organizational stakeholders have a say.

Equally, should it be untenable to have multiple people interview a candidate, the hiring manager should draw on definitions of culture fit from a diverse group of employees. Doing so, Gassam argues, will lead to a much more realistic and accurate idea of what the corporate culture really is. 

Hiring for culture fit is not an effective or sustainable approach to finding the best candidates, though. Even with diverse inputs from colleagues and stakeholders, it can perpetuate biases and exclude qualified candidates.

Far better is to rethink what candidates can add to a company’s culture. That starts by ensuring the candidate’s values and the company’s values are in alignment. This approach can yield diversity of thought, personalities and colleagues while supporting the organization’s business goals.

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