Why Hiring for Culture Fit Will Lead to an Unfit Workplace Culture

Fight for Diversity: Erhobene Faust vor einem Hintergund mit stilisiertem Corona-Virus.
Everyone wants to hire the best. Not only the most skilled and most experienced, but the candidate who will thrive and add the most value. Many consider culture fit the secret sauce to finding the best. But while culture fit has advanced to buzzword status over the past few years, it also poses a threat to innovation and growth.

What’s the Problem With Culture Fit?

The common-sense rationale is that a candidate who fits nicely into the company culture will get along great with the rest of the team, integrate quickly, and bring their superpowers to fruition without disrupting the internal status quo.

The lowest common denominator of culture fit is the so-called beer test. Would the hiring manager enjoy grabbing a beer with the candidate? Excellent, they’ll fit right in. No? Too bad, the candidate probably won’t gel with the team; we’ll have to go with someone else. If you can’t imagine going for a beer with someone, why would you want to spend long working hours with them, after all?

The beer test, like the idea of culture fit more generally, is based on likeability. Unfortunately, most people can best think of casually grabbing a beer with someone they share a background, some interests, and common cultural references with. Someone they immediately hit it off with, without the need of getting to know each other more closely. That happens more often than not with the kind of people we’re used to being around. Like the people we grew up with, the people we went to school and university with, or the people we encounter through our social networks. And those people are in many ways pretty similar to ourselves.

Many women, people of colour, people from different socio-economic backgrounds, LGBT folks, and members of other underrepresented groups don’t travel in the same circles as hiring managers. The same goes for older candidates, folks with different religious or political beliefs, or those with care responsibilities. Sometimes that’s by choice, sometimes by necessity, and sometimes due to structural inequalities and exclusions.

Whatever the reason, people who don’t share a background and a social circle with the hiring manager are much less likely to pass the beer test. Some may not even drink beer at all. And when the underlying premise is to work hard and play hard together, anyone who isn’t in a position to uphold the play bit is out by default. Based on culture fit, our teams come to resemble a caricature of diversity as a bunch of white guys of different height and beard length.

I exaggerate. But hiring for culture fit does lead to homogeneous teams. And research shows that homogeneity is bad for creativity and innovation and thus bad for the bottom line. In industries dominated by white men, homogeneity often means more men of similar backgrounds, who went to the same set of prestigious schools to get the same degrees, had similar career trajectories, and are part of similar social networks. Even if more than beards sets them apart.

Focusing on culture fit also sidesteps more important qualities. That a hiring manager feels uninclined to grab a drink with a potential employee doesn’t mean they won’t be a valuable addition to the team. Hiring for culture fit is a convenient and overused excuse to not hire folks who disagree with what you already believe.

The Big Players Are Pivoting

As ever more companies ramp up their diversity and inclusion efforts, hiring for culture fit is falling out of favour. Facebook has banned culture fit in interviewer feedback and restructured the interview process to focus on how well a candidate aligns with the company’s core values. Atlassian takes a similar approach in hiring for what they call “values fit,” and a “culture add” approach is widely touted as the new and improved version of culture fit.

I’m not here to evaluate whether these alternatives lead to more inclusive hiring practices or are mere wordplay to disguise stagnating change. In any case, these shifts in reporting, recruiting practice, and diversity policy remain mostly confined to large companies with the support of big HR departments, in-house recruiters, diversity and inclusion managers, and consultancies to assist in the process.

While the big players pivot, the vast majority of businesses is small: 98% of US businesses employ fewer than 100 workers and 47.5% of all employees, and over 99% of UK businesses employ fewer than 50 workers and 48% of all employees. And even though startups are founded to scale, they all start small too.

Most small businesses and startups in the earlier stages don’t have the resources or the HR and diversity expertise of large corporations. While many understand the importance of diverse teams and an inclusive workplace culture, they lack the tools to consistently improve on those fronts and continue to stumble over practices like hiring for culture fit.

What Can Startups and Small Businesses Do?

Make an effort to eliminate culture fit as a criterion when expanding your team. Think of workplace culture as an ongoing project that is actively shaped by you and your team. If your workplace culture feels like only people of the same mould will do well, the culture is the problem rather than anyone who might not fit in. Address that instead of hiring more folks who will.

And try some of the following strategies to avoid falling back on a culture fit rationale when hiring:

Look for a counterpart to, not a reflection of, your team. Find someone who can add value and challenge the team. Instead of imagining how a candidate might fit in with the team, think about what new perspectives they could bring and how team, work, and workplace culture may benefit from them. How might a candidate challenge you to raise your game?

Keep names and other identifying information out of the recruiting process as long as possible. Names lead to assumptions about gender, race, or nationality that shouldn’t inform how you read a cover letter or résumé or look at work samples. Name discrimination in hiring is real, as is confirmation bias. If you expect a woman to be less technical, even unconsciously, that’s what you’ll see.

Take notes early on. What aspects of an application convince you, what qualities do you see in the candidate, what doesn’t convince you, and why? What could change your mind? Using those notes throughout the recruiting process keeps you focused on the criteria you set for the position rather than a gut feeling about culture fit.

Have conversations with folks who are decidedly unlike you. Find things to talk about that don’t rely on a shared background, in-group knowledge, or cultural references you have in common. Doing so not only expands your network and your comfort zone but also helps you learn what others bring to the table.

Practice listening to and talking with folks despite language barriers. For example, people who aren’t native speakers, who speak with an accent different from yours, or who have a speech impairment. How someone speaks affects what we hear and can lead to false assumptions about competence or intelligence. Listening skills are crucial to work across differences and foster an inclusive workplace culture.

If you think you really can’t let go of culture fit, try to operationalise it into more adequate hiring criteria than someone’s gut feeling. Translate and map your workplace culture to specific values, skills, abilities, or factors that motivate and drive a candidate. If this sounds a little vague and difficult to measure, that’s because it is. The most reliable way to not discriminate based on culture fit is to not hire based on culture fit.

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— Sevkan Bolu, Global HR Manager, Vaillant Group
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