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“Culture Fit” is Code for Biased Hiring

Susan K Rits
Feb 17, 2018 · 5 min read

“During the filming of Planet of the Apes in 1967, Charlton Heston noted ‘an instinctive segregation on the set. Not only would the apes eat together, but the chimpanzees ate with the chimpanzees, the gorillas ate with the gorillas, the orangutans ate with the orangutans, and the humans would eat off by themselves. It was quite spooky.’” — John Farrier, When the Actors in Planet of the Apes Donned Their Makeup, They Spontaneously Segregated Themselves

We talk a lot in Silicon Valley about diversity in the workplace and how to overcome unconscious bias in hiring. We consider the pipeline problem and ask women and minorities to Lean In more. We are super considerate of new parents — dads as well as moms get time off for a birth or adoption — and we claim to be implementing more egalitarian HR processes.

Still we cling adamantly to the idea that candidates must somehow “fit the culture” of our team and company, and based on a lack of culture fit, many candidates are refused a job.

As the observations above (and countless other more scientific studies) show, people like people like themselves. Whether that be actors in bad chimpanzee makeup or young white male engineers at Google. It is nature to self segregate — it is cultural progress to correct that segregation.

There is no lack of quality candidates

“In technology, there’s a perception that women simply aren’t applying for jobs, hence numbers like Google’s, where women account for only 18 percent of the technical workforce. But GapJumpers has found that 54 percent of its blind auditioners are women. Moreover, almost 59 percent of top performers in blind auditions are women.” — 6 Ways to Remove Hiring Bias from the Recruitment Process

Plenty of researchers have shown that the lack of diversity in tech companies is due to biased hiring practices and not a dearth of talent.

With the vigorous screening and interviewing process we put candidates through in the tech industry, lack of skill is identified long before anyone steps into our offices for an on-site interview. And yet, there are companies that have been searching for 6+ months or have brought in 20–30 candidates only to have all rejected by the team.

What goes wrong?

If it were a lack of talent there wouldn’t have been 20 candidates to begin with. What we’re witnessing is the internal bias machine successfully keeping out quality hires for purely subjective reasons.

When “us” means white, under 30 and mostly male, then more than half the eligible candidates out there won’t “feel like a culture fit” when they finally make it through our doors to meet in person.

Culture fit is not about collaboration and professionalism

Every company I talk to proudly claims their culture is the envy of Silicon Valley. They wax poetic about the helpfulness of their employees, their ability to hash out issues and express different points of view (but in a good way, a polite way) and what a pleasure it is to work at a place where everyone collaborates and is treated respectfully.

That’s great. I’m always glad when a business has achieved the baseline for civil interactions and a professional work environment. But when I look around and see a floor full of the same kind of faces, I know that culture is their kryptonite, not their super power.

What we really mean when someone doesn’t fit our corporate culture

I don’t believe I’ve ever interviewed a truly bad person — a rogue, sociopath or other bad apple. If I have I certainly didn’t recognize him as one. (In fact, I can think of a co-worker who turned out to have a strong sociopathic streak and caused enormous trouble for the company. She was a lovely person that everyone liked right up to the end.)

Let’s admit that we’ve never been able to screen out bad actors during the onsite interviews. Those who will lie, or not show up to work, or steal, or sabotage are not going to reveal that in an interview. All we’re really doing at those in-person meetings is verifying that we like the person and want to work with them.

So when we feel uncomfortable around a candidate, it is not because that person is dangerous or hostile or the poison that’s going to take down our company. It’s most likely because that person it not like us.

Not our age, not our gender, not our race, not our body type, not our personality type.

That person made us uncomfortable for being different. She was intimidating or too outspoken. He dressed in a way we would never dress, or speaks too loudly, or too softly, too fast or slow.

There are myriad ways in which someone is “other.” And other is not a culture fit.

Want to know what’s other in your company? Look around at the people sitting next to you and notice the commonality. That’s your company culture — anything else is Other.

Why hiring should never be a popularity contest

Likewise, we can’t allow a single employee to reject good candidates based on personal taste. Remember the actors in chimp costumes self-segregating? We leaders must work proactively to halt this tendency in our employees.

The pernicious method of allowing team members to rank and veto candidates sounds oh so egalitarian, but it’s really a way to ensure that any one individual’s biases guides the hiring decisions for the entire team. Hiring has become a popularity contest rather than a skills contest.

The result is that a single team member can skunk a candidate with no other excuse but that she doesn’t like him (“not a culture fit”). Departments that have nursed an open position for six months or longer are victims of this phenomenon.

In a creative team, homogeneity is antithetical to design thinking where we encourage otherness, quirkiness, and challenging the norms. Yet I’ve seen design teams fall into this same prescription for failure — judging most important a candidate’s ability to blend in and become an undifferentiated part of the team. Another agreeable cog in a machine that only ends up making cogs.

Diversity is not a social justice thing, it’s a business competition thing

Contentment does not drive innovation. Business doesn’t thrive on group think or conservatism. No manager should be satisfied with the status quo. The goal is always to challenge and expand the boundaries and abilities of a team.

In the same way, we must stop defining those goals as keeping teams cozy and comfortable. Business thrives on innovation, creativity, and risk-taking. If we always hire the same kind of people we throttle innovation and creativity. And we’re telling our employees that thinking differently is risky and “not us.”

How much different might our technology — and so our society — be if women and minorities had been part of the innovation machine from the beginning?

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