If you’ve interviewed with a company or worked with a recruiter recently, you’ve probably come across the concept of hiring for culture fit.
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.”
What is Hiring for Culture Fit?
Management and organization development consultant Susan Heathfield provides a definition of hiring for culture fit in The Balance: “You want to hire only candidates whose belief and behavior systems appear congruent with your organizational culture.”
“Culture fit is the glue that holds an organization together,” says Katie Bouton, founder and president of executive search firm Koya Leadership Partners, in the Harvard Business Review. “That’s why it’s a key trait to look for when recruiting.”
While championing the importance of hiring for culture fit, Bouton does address a serious criticism. “There has been a lot of talk recently about how looking for culture fit can lead to discrimination against candidates and a lack of diversity,” she says. “It’s important to understand that hiring for culture fit doesn’t mean hiring people who are all the same. The values and attributes that make up an organizational culture can and should be reflected in a richly diverse workforce.”
In practice, I have found that this isn’t how hiring for culture fit pans out. In my nearly seven years as a writer, editor, social media manager, virtual assistant, and consultant, I have worked with more than 150 start-ups and small businesses from 18 countries. I have had experience with companies that highly value culture fit and have developed my own perspective on how this stymies efforts for diverse recruitment.
How Hiring for Culture Fit Limits Diversity
To illustrate the impact of hiring for culture fit on diversity using an example from my own life, I recently had the opportunity to work as a proofreader for a start-up that was looking for what a recruiter called “great culture fit.” The recruiter made it clear that this company was “all about personality” and “very picky.” For the sake of brevity, I’ll just mention the first of the shopping list of desired traits they were looking for: someone who was “very extraverted.”
I’m going to give this organization the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn’t realize how much this requirement would limit diversity.
In 2002, researchers Konstabel, Realo, and Kallasmaa found that cultural groups that scored high on measures of collectivism —which can be defined as how much a group is given priority over each individual within it — scored lower on measures of extraversion than a normative American sample.
In the article Culture and Personality Among European American and Asian American Men, authors Eap et al. posit the idea that, in a culture that values interdependence and in-group norms, extraversion may violate the maintenance of social harmony.
My family and I are from Latin America. According to Hofstede Insights, a consulting firm that leverages research by social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who pioneered research into collectivist and individualist cultures, Latin American cultures are significantly more collectivist than the United States.
Growing up, my father told me that “the nail that stands up will be hammered down.” He urged me to stay away from the center of attention, down to telling me to sit at the edge of the dining table while having lunch at school. He told me that I talked too much and needed to listen more. Humility and moderation were among the most important values that he taught me.
Having lived in South Beach, Miami, where I attended a majority-Hispanic school with a high percentage of immigrant families from Latin American countries, I can tell you that few of my classmates were what white America would called “very extraverted.” The kids I went to school with prefered give-and-take conversations in tight-knit groups in which no one child stood out. This is not to say that there are no Latino extraverts, but that, as a collectivist culture, we can expect Latin Americans to be more predisposed to be what professor emeritus of psychology Harry C. Triandis of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana calls “shy” with new people.
“People in collectivist cultures are rather shy when they have to enter new groups,” says Triandis, “people in individualist cultures are rather skilled in entering new groups and in dealing with others in superficial ways, such as at a cocktail party.”
According to Hofstede Insights, the United States is “one of the the most Individualist … cultures in the world.” So, if the above-cited professional opinions on collectivism, introversion, and shyness are correct, the U.S. is one of the most extraverted and outgoing cultures.
As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, writes in the blog post The Power of Introverts, “Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extraverts.”
Most businesses are run and staffed by white Americans, so their cultures will reflect white American culture. Thus, when an organization says that they want to hire people who fit within their culture, what are they really saying to cultural minorities?
Back to my earlier example, all of the traits that the organization looking to hire a proofreader were looking for were traits that, like extraversion, I have found to be highly valued in white America, but much less so in other cultures. None were traits required to proofread well. Although the position was a great match for my work experience and skills, I told the recruiter I wasn’t interested.
“But wait,” you ask, “what if I genuinely don’t feel that someone who isn’t very extraverted will feel happy at my company?”
If this is really the case, you need to address the problems that are making your organization hostile to people from less extraverted cultures, as well as what Cain calls the “one-third to one-half of Americans” who are introverts. Do meetings revolve around the people who draw the most attention to themselves? Are employees not given time to work independently? If so, you need to consider whether you can afford to continue alienating up to half of your applicants and employees, especially if you truly want a more diverse workplace.
In short, personality traits are shaped by culture, so by shopping for personality traits that reflect white American cultural values, companies are discriminating against applicants from other cultural backgrounds.
My issue with hiring for cultural fit goes beyond how it limits diversity in the traditional sense, however.
Diversity Isn’t Just About Ethnicity
Virtually all organizations today claim to want diversity in terms of traits like race and ethnicity, even if what they really seem to want is a white American in the body of a minority. That aside, how many organizations value diversity of thought, personality, and character?
Another start-up I recently worked with claimed to value diversity, but, in addition to being almost entirely composed of white, American millenials, had reviews on company review website Glassdoor that felt like they had been written as warnings against joining a cult. Many reviewers complained that the emphasis on cultural fit excluded people with personalities that didn’t match the mold. I severed my relationship with the organization when I began to feel the same way.
How common is this problem among start-ups?
According to Carlos Bueno, product manager on Lyft’s self-driving car project, lack of diversity in terms of everything from styles of dress to hobbies is the norm in Silicon Valley.
“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.”
Since start-ups across the country look to Silicon Valley as an example, it makes sense that they would mirror its exclusionary hiring practices.
As I mentioned above, the start-up looking for a “very extraverted” proofreader has eliminated up to half of American applicants right off the bat before even getting to the rest of their list of ideal personality traits in an applicant. How might that affect their search for top talent?
The Issue of Untapped Talent
“It’s hard to argue against the fact that the Valley is unfairly exclusionary. This implies that there is a large untapped talent pool to be developed,” says Bueno. “Since the tech war boils down to a talent war, the company that figures out how to get over itself and tap that pool wins.”
I would argue that companies in general are at war over qualified workers. According to the latest report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 4.1%, which is low enough that we can expect companies to be vying with each other to recruit talented people. In such an environment, companies can’t afford to eliminate applicants for having personality traits that aren’t a perfect fit with their existing clique.
This continuing period of low unemployment may be part of why companies are slowly abandoning the idea of culture fit.
The End of Culture Fit
“Companies are beginning to drop the idea of culture fit altogether,” says Schmidt. “As more companies shift their recruiting focus towards intentional diversity and inclusion efforts, they’re reframing their thinking to how diverse candidates can add to their culture — not fit into it.”
In the meantime, workers who don’t fit the ideals of white American culture, regardless of their cultural background, will be forced to fake it or find a company with a culture that is similarly outside the norm. Diversity is beloved in theory, at least in terms of appearance. In practice, people from the dominant culture continue to discriminate against those who are not like them.