When 'Cultural Fit' Hides Bias

I recall the first time I joined a company that truly did not want supersized egos to be part of their team. They applied the concept of weeding out otherwise suitable candidates based on cultural fit. It was years ago and I'd never experienced a workplace like that. Most of the teams truly were ego-free. It was remarkable. It actually worked for a while.

I thought of how much I have seen that change over the years while reading this articlecovering the recent WCT panel discussion on gender imbalance in the workplace.

To be clear: this article notes the examples of hiring for "fit" and the resulting imbalances are rarely malicious. Like hires like; creating comfort. I am taking this one step further and calling out what can lie behind the desire to remain comfortable. 

 It can also create a slippery slope allowing for bias to creep further into the hiring process.Rejecting candidates based on cultural fit has its upside, as noted at the start. It can also create a slippery slope for both companies and hiring managers who risk endorsing a blank cheque for bias to creep further into the hiring process. (It already exists at every stage before a candidate reaches the interview). Let’s take a look at the bias towards age, gender, and experience.

Age

"Not a good cultural fit," says the hiring manager of a middle-aged candidate who interviews for a team made up of 20 somethings. 

Their concern? This team works really well together. They hang out after work and genuinely enjoy spending time with one another. By hiring another candidate closer in age, the cohesiveness of the team will not be disrupted. This underscores the current trend in ageism seen in hiring practices.

 

First, the presumption that the 20 somethings will not be welcoming of a more experienced teammate is insulting to the existing team. More importantly, that team is being denied the opportunity to a) learn from someone who may have more experience b) share their perspectives with a new teammate who will likely have different viewpoints based on that experience and c) leapfrog their thinking and output because of the shakeup in team dynamics. That cohesive team may be performing well, but how much better could they perform if things do not remain status quo?

Gender

"She just won't fit in with the guys," says the team-lead who actually expresses concern about how the female candidate would impact the annual boys' retreat/paintball weekend when she leaves the interview.

I wish this kind of thinking were no longer the case. Concern over accommodation and acclimation of different genders into an already homogenous group may become focused on areas that have little to no impact on the work itself. Transitioning to a gender-balanced team takes a concerted effort and requires adjustment. Scaling for sustainable success always does.

Balanced gender organizations, teams and boards perform better. Knowing this, when I found my last tech team to be skewing heavily female after recent hires and departures, I was going to focus the next round of talent acquisition on male candidates. You read that right, I was determined to increase the number of men on a technology team because that was what was best for the team.

Experience

“The cultural fit we want is exactly what we had at my last company,” says the hiring manager when speaking with HR about new postings. Against the odds, all the best candidates for the next five open positions come from the same company the hiring manager just left! (Alma Maters also work well here)

 

The result is a mini team of group-thinkers. They have been selected because of a shared method of working and thinking. Therefore they continue to replicate that in the new workplace. Unfortunately, they may all bring the same work experience with them. The miss here is gaining new perspectives based on experience at different sized companies, of leveraging a wide range of previous best practices, and even better – harnessing the potential of an even greater set of lessons learned within your team.

You may be thinking these examples are a little over-the-top. I can absolutely vouch for the fact these have happened and continue to happen today. Why?

“Cultural fit” was a positive step towards looking beyond the resume of a candidate. Now it can be used more broadly to mask the fear of leaving our comfort zones. The bias of keeping things the same can stem from uncertainty, inexperience as a hiring manager, undue influence from peers; it can also be code for filtering candidates out based on purely discriminatory beliefs if it remains unchallenged.

I still believe in the importance of taking a more holistic approach when considering potential candidates. What I would love to see is a respectful challenge vocalized whenever a candidate is being dismissed based on not being a cultural fit. What is it exactly that sets them apart from the rest of the company or team? 

That difference? It could just be exactly what the team needs.