Is our Quest for 'Culture fit'​ Helping Bias Thrive in Disguise

You might have been on either side of this well-accepted, but misguided recruitment practice. It goes like this. The person known to either the hiring manager or the recruiter slides in through an invisible back door and straight in to the role. Without competing with other worthy candidates through an unbiased and objective process, they get in on a fast track. This can happen even when the role is publicly advertised. When you are the one who just slid in to that role, you might want to thank your career horoscope for the month and your networking karma that paid off at the right time.

But when you are the one left high and dry, you can feel possible anger, frustration and a great amount of injustice. It's not your fault that you weren't part of the trustworthy circle of the person in-charge of opening that back door. Instead, you hear something on these lines, 'we found someone more experienced and suitable for the role'. But then you get to know there was likely no shortlisting, a fair interview process or a considered selection method employed. Sadly, many organisations can breeze through all these steps or miss some all together, and justify their final hire quite convincingly to themselves and others.

The compelling reasons we don't hear about are that it's often considered a safer bet to hire someone well known to someone inside (or so we think) and definitely quicker, cheaper and easier to sell to the team and the leader they will be joining. Or that knowing someone beforehand or filtering on a familiar ethnic or cultural group is a great way to cut through the fifty or hundred resumes they are likely to get for a single job vacancy. None of it makes any sense or seems responsible and yet, it's the way several organisations can continue to recruit and not be called out for.

This, you might agree, is not what culture fit might mean or should look like.

This is more a nod to cultural cliques and hiring for convenience. This kind of hiring comes with its sharp edges and might not cultivate innovation, inclusion or agility in the business.

How culture fit came to mean likeability, sharing hobbies and high schools.

If you crawled the internet in search of research and data on culture fit, you'll find a fascinating treasure trove of articles, blogs and all kinds of advice on how to prepare yourself for the unspoken culture fit test during an interview. There's plenty suggestions for candidates that include elaborate plans to research the company, their leaders, what the leaders post on social media, coffee outings with existing employees, finding out how people dress up and how leaders come across on YouTube videos. Generally speaking, do that which makes you an ideal candidate who will speak to the selection panel as if you belonged there and you were (almost) one of their own.

The disturbing part is, most of us might have picked up on such advice and found success. It does make sense to research the company and its leaders, though not necessarily to twin the panel, but because it's common sense and courtesy to be in tune with the company you want to join. To pitch yourself as an ideal employee does raise your chances of selection. However, these fine lines of distinction between valid preparation and moulding oneself to answer the culture fit question become muddy.

Which is also when culture fit can begin to make us uncomfortable and squirm a bit in our chairs. What exactly does it mean to be relatable and likeable to a selection panel? And who and what are we relating to? Is it the company's values, work and purpose or our perception of its culture and people preferences?

A recent and relevant report from a British government commission found that those hiring often judged recruits more by their accents and other markers of social class than by their actual qualifications. While this is shocking, it still doesn't surprise us, perhaps. We assume bias and even normalise it without realising we did that. To echo this, in a 2012 paper for American Sociological Review, Lauren A. Rivera found a similar pattern through 120 interviews with professionals involved in hiring at U.S. investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms. She learned that “shared experiences” was one of the biggest factors being used by those hiring for culture fit.

“Shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own. Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not. Some (former) athletes fit exclusively with other athletes; others fit only with those who played the same sport. At one hiring committee meeting I attended, I watched a partner who was an avid Red Sox fan argue for rejecting a Yankees supporter on the grounds of misfit.”

So, how does hiring for biographies and social behaviour instead of role relevant experiences pan out in reality?

Ever heard of the Beer Test and the Airport Lounge Test to measure culture fit?

These are real terms that hiring managers and selection panels can use to decide if the candidate in front of them might fit in with their culture or not. Or shall we say, if the candidate might fit in with them!

A beer test is when you ask yourself if you'd like to spend your time with the candidate having a beer after work. Would you enjoy such a proposition? If the answer is yes, then the candidate would likely fit your culture. This is not to say their technical skills weren't relevant, but if you were weighing your options between two candidates almost equally qualified, you'd likely listen to the beer test and its outcome to tip the scale.

We don't stop of ask what if the person didn't like beer or drink alcohol or had no scope to socialise right after work on most days because they had caring and home responsibilities. Needless to say, they might fail the beer test right away.

The airport lounge test is similar. If you were stuck at an airport lounge waiting for a flight, would you want to be stuck with the candidate in front of you? Think about it, if you can't even sit with them in a lounge, how can you ever be with them on a flight from Melbourne to LA? In some interviewers' mind, this is a sound way to gauge culture fit.

Silly question, you might say, but does any of this hold water? Carolyn Betts Fleming is the founder and CEO of Betts Recruiting, a San Francisco-based recruiting firm and says, "Personally, after years of running a global recruitment firm, I have found that the beer test – if you can call it that – leads to poor hiring decisions, unintended discrimination, and often prevents a diverse workplace." 

Is culture fit an outcome of our innate tribal instincts and not a hiring strategy?

Confirmation bias occurs when interviewers make unconscious judgements about a candidate’s suitability for the role within the first 10 seconds of interaction, and then spend the rest of the interview seeking information to confirm this first impression. These biases can be triggered by a variety of factors, including their gender, race, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms, their level of extraversion, and more. Couple this with an instinct-based interview that goes organically as the interviewer backs their several years' worth of gut-feel and experience, we have a disturbing mix of biases-based strategies.

According to Carlos Bueno, product manager on Lyft’s self-driving car project, “We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing,” says Bueno of Silicon Valley. “After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.”

Molly Q Ford, Senior Director of Global Equality Programs at Salesforce, goes so far as to say, “Culture fit is the new racism. Forget that word. It should be culture add-on.”

You might disagree with this black and white view of culture fit and maybe, there's some value to talking about it when hiring. So, let's explore this a bit further.

How prepared are we to interview and hire for culture fit?

In a survey by Cubiks on job and culture fit, 82 percent of those asked said they believed measuring cultural fit was an important part of the recruitment process. But only 54 percent said that their organisation has a clearly defined culture.

Whether we understand our organisation's culture and have ways to measure it or not, hiring for culture fit has become “established as a foundation of many corporate recruiting processes,” says Lars Schmidt, founder of recruiting consultancy firm Amplify Talent, in Forbes. “The term was embedded in career sites, integrated into interview processes, and touted as a competitive advantage for many organizations in the tech community. Over the years, the term has taken on more of a tribal meaning. People who think like us. People who work like us. People who live like us. People who look like us.”

When you are judging for likeability, which is much easier to detect over a one-hour interview, you gather speed, efficiency and numbers quickly. On the other hand, it's time-consuming, complex and daunting to first get clear and unified on what your organisation's culture means, how to assess it and translate it into a structured interview process that can help hire for culture fit, but not at the expense of diversity and fairness.

So, it might be useful to define your culture before it's defined by the person recruiting your top talent. "There's a huge difference between owning your culture and being able to point to it as a recruiting, hiring and retention tool, and having culture be a deterrent to the kind of people you want to hire," says Donna Levin, co-founder and previously vice president of Care.com, and now a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.

She says, "One of the first things we did when starting Care.com was to sit down and describe the kind of workplace we wanted; the kinds of people we wanted to work for and with, and set to translate those into action. Then, we used those traits, those values and qualities to hire". This is easier said than done. Anyone who's ever tried pinning down their organisational culture and translating it into a culture fit assessment for hiring will know. Defining company culture is an arduous and time taking process, not to mention, there are sub-cultures to factor in, and all cultures evolve, shift and mature over time.

At the very least, one must have a structured interview process that is competency-based and not heavily reliant on behavioural questions alone. Structured competency questions can help gauge a candidate's possible match with the role in question and what skills the team was looking to hire. Competency-based interviews that help assess past behaviours as future predictors of performance are one of the more robust ways of selecting new hires. They also provide consistency, so candidates are measured on the same criteria and not whether their favourite pub in town was the same as yours. Behavioural questions are also valuable to know the personal strengths and willingness of the candidate to display desired cultural behaviours such as, innovation, teamwork or inclusion.

There's a caution even with this successful and proven competency and behavioural interview technique. Remember, I mentioned earlier how there is a plethora of information on how to ace culture fit interviews? Well, there's lots more advice on how to predict structured interview questions and give socially desirable answers to a panel. Interviewers need to evolve their techniques and look for patterns of performance and behaviour through asking multiple questions on desired competencies and cultural values. It also helps to probe the candidate's STAR story to understand if there's depth and repeatability to their response.

Irrespective of the hard work involved, is hiring for culture fit even useful?

There is an obvious attraction to the idea of hiring someone who might hit the ground running but not barrel into the team's current culture and ways of working. Who would want someone new to come in and start saying things that don't gel with most others, or even stir up some level of controversy and conflict. It's a fact that diverse teams are much more challenging to lead than homogenous teams. So, unless you were really alert to not creating replicas of team members, hiring for fitting in with the current culture can go quite wrong, while it might look calm and effective on the surface.

Calm is not always a good thing. Hiring to fit in can unwittingly keep the organisation where it is instead of being able to keep pace with the mind boggling changes in our marketplace. If nothing new gets discussed in meetings, and the past continues to shroud decision-making in murky layers of rank, head-nodding and back slapping, then progress is a far fetched notion. What instead might happen is for costly mistakes to get covered up and repeated in the future. After all, if you are rewarded for agreeing and keeping peace and being a cultural fit, you certainly won't risk dissent or challenge the boss when it really matters.

Not only can we keep adding to the status quo, we can make 'bad fit' hires under an illusion of hiring for culture fit, says Donna Levin, formerly co-founder at Care.com. She goes on to share, "We found through a 2012 survey of our customers that turnover was costing, on average, 150 percent of each lost employees' salary -- dealing with the disruption, search, interviewing, all of that," Levin says. "If your culture's toxic, you're going to see this. And you'll also see your reputation take a hit as people turn to social media to tell everyone how awful their experience was".

So, unless we really knew what our culture was about, what we wanted to fit in a candidate with or how it might pan out in the workplace, we might be in for some turbulent outcomes.

Culture fit or values fit or even, talent fit?

While Facebook leaves a lot to be desired as an organisation when it comes to transparency in recent times, it took a positive step forward to address their lack of diversity. Facebook has prohibited interviewers from using the term “culture fit” as a blanket term when providing feedback on what they liked or disliked about a candidate. Instead, interviewers are required to provide specific feedback that supports their position.

Another way to rethink the term culture fit for the future is to think of it as "Values Fit", instead. Australian software company, Atlassian, has restructured their recruitment strategy, so they can hire in alignment with the company's values and not vague and tricky notions of likeability as a yardstick. “Focusing on "values fit" ensures we hire people who share our sense of purpose and guiding principles, while actively looking for those with diverse viewpoints, backgrounds, and skill sets. We're trying to build a healthy and balanced culture, not a cult", says Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Belonging.

The value of culture adds or culture add-ons

At Pandora, a US based music streaming company, the term culture fit has evolved to “Culture Add”. Pandora initiated an internal conversation to understand who they wanted to hire and on what basis would they think of them as great hires. That’s why Pandora looks for “culture add” in candidates instead —new and unique skills and viewpoints that don’t already exist at the company. “Culture add” means shaping the culture rather than fitting into it. Pandora has an integrated B2E (business to employee) strategy, elevating programming around inclusion, and scaling its efforts through cultural storytelling. The organisation considers 'Culture Add' as their Northern Star and for them, "diversity is not a trend, it’s embedded in who we are and ingrained in everything we do. It’s reflected in our rich musical universe and that’s a direct result of people and their vibrant experiences.” As a result it has impressive diversity stats and ambitious goals for the future, both of which can make it a more robust organisation that supports diversity and also team cohesion.

If we are to make progress on diversity goals and create sustainable, future-focussed and resilient organisations, we can't allow ourselves to get trapped in a rigged idea of cultural fit.

It's fair to want new employees that resonate with our purpose, values and business outcomes. All of which is possible while also recruiting diverse and skilled employees who add to cultural richness and spur a healthy amount of challenge, conflict and difference on the way. Being diverse is a strength that a skilled, well-prepared and mindful recruiter can harness without straying from their brief of hiring 'good fits'. Of course, the leaders would have had to do their jobs first of defining and engaging with what their culture meant and what it could mean in the future.