The Myth of Hiring for “Fit”
Six years ago, a hiring manager at an independent creative agency took a look at my résumé, which was confettied with retail and teaching experience, and asked me enough of the right questions to determine that I was smart and scrappy and likely would be a good fit in the company’s culture. The hiring manager took a leap of faith based on “fit” and offered me a job for which I was seemingly unqualified — at least on paper.
As the trend of “hiring for fit” becomes commonplace, the typical measures to vet job applicants seem to be on the wane. More and more, standard résumés are passé and even experience is negotiable. For a growing number of employers, the No. 1 deciding factor in the hiring process is whether or not a candidate fits into a company’s corporate culture. While I’ve benefited from the movement of hiring for fit over a narrowly defined set of experiences, as I’ve observed how this tactic has been applied in practice across the industry, it’s clear to me that many companies aren’t taking responsibility for what “fit” actually means. I’d like to officially call bullshit.
In the context of employment practices, fit is often nebulous and ill-defined, and hiring for fit has become an easy pretext for like to hire like. After all, human nature suggests that we simply are more comfortable hiring and working with others who share similar experiences, backgrounds, and ideas. Hiring for fit, then, can become an exercise in confirmation bias, where hiring managers populate their offices with colleagues who are mirror images of themselves.
At most companies, corporate cultures are created and established over time, a by-product of accumulated voices and experiences that add up to a company’s identity. Strongly rooted cultures are readily apparent and usually unflappable, while nascent cultures can be fragile. Most companies’ corporate cultures are somewhere in between, and therein lies the problem: If a company’s corporate culture is in transition or is a work-in-progress (as it is at many places), then what precisely constitutes proper hiring for fit, especially if the right fit hasn’t yet been or isn’t clearly defined? Is hiring for fit an exercise in actualization or aspiration?
Conversely, if a company has a well-defined (and, perhaps, overly rigid) corporate culture and a hiring manager’s mandate is to hire primarily — if not exclusively — for fit, there’s a good chance the company only will seek out cookie-cutter candidates who went to the “right” schools and had the “right” kinds of experiences, i.e., alumni from the same university programs and companies. I don’t know about you, but the idea of working with the same kinds of people with the same kinds of backgrounds would be like working in an echo chamber. Meaning, it would suck.
What’s potentially exciting and promising about this new value system in hiring is that the practice — when applied correctly and openly — should diversify teams, particularly creative ones. The reality is that there isn’t a level playing field, especially for women, people of color or those with unconventional educational and professional histories. Few people can afford the now-standard six-unpaid-internships route to getting a job in marketing or design — I certainly couldn’t. If we are hiring for fit, what we really should consider is how a candidate fits into a complex mosaic, rather than into a sea of sameness. We need to take a closer look at every candidate and look beyond the obvious measures — and we actually need to mean it.
At FOUR32C, we always try to be aware of our inherent tendencies whenever we’re hiring. Yes, we care about fit, but we also proactively define our value system and deliberately fight against the kinds of subliminal biases that could prevent us from recognizing an amazing talent whose résumé, portfolio or background may not be an obvious “fit” at first glance.
Having come full circle as a job applicant with an idiosyncratic résumé and atypical work history who now is in the position to set the tone and guidance for how my company vets and hires candidates, I am empathetic to both sides. Here are three values that we use when we’re hiring:
We believe in transparency. FOUR32C’s small size (and open workspace) may afford us the freedom to encourage a culture of transparency, but regardless of size, all companies benefit from clarity of vision and purpose — and sharing what that means with job applicants. Moreover, a company doesn’t necessarily need a robust and clearly delineated culture to know its own value system. Communicating upfront the attributes required to thrive in a company’s culture is essential. At FOUR32C, we appreciate thinker-doers who aren’t afraid to challenge convention and fight against the status quo.
We actively seek diversity. While lots of companies pay lip service to diversity, few actually have a coherent strategy to realize genuine diversity in the hiring process. We don’t wait for a diverse candidate pool to magically trickle into our inbox; instead, we proactively seek out those candidates. We also look for candidates with unique backgrounds and different kinds of experiences. Because we design products for different types of consumers, it makes sense for us to have lots of different types of colleagues in our studio.
We ask a lot of (off-topic) questions. Most importantly, we’ve stopped winging our interviews and you probably should, too. Assuming that a candidate has the right stuff to get the job done based on the pre-screening that got her into the door in the first place, the face-to-face interview process shouldn’t be a joint review of the candidate’s credentials. We’re much more interested in what’s not on the job applicant’s résumé because those things can reveal a lot more than whether or not she prefers Sketch over PhotoShop. By preparing for an interview in the same way that a candidate does, we’re able to probe deeper and have more meaningful conversations. Because, really, learning the story behind why a candidate’s Twitter feed is filled with animated cat GIFs provides greater insights than a résumé bullet point.
The bottom line is that job applicants want to know that they will have the support and space to thrive at their jobs and hiring companies want to know that they want to work with them. This requires empathy, grit, integrity, curiosity, and self-awareness — from both sides of the table — starting at the interview. When prospective employer and prospective employee can rise above the distinctly bonkers and completely artificial process known as the job interview, and both can honestly connect and see whether or not there’s a genuine fit, that’s when things get interesting. — by Kiki Bowman
FOUR32C is an independent digital design studio in New York City. We’re curious digital natives who bring creativity and intelligence to the world’s most beloved brands. We create thoughtful, compelling experiences by starting every project with questions. Our process leads to evocative products designed with a purpose for every pixel. For more information, visit us at www.four32c.com.