There’s a hot debate right now in HR circles around the potential consequences of hiring for “culture fit.” And while the conversations are valid — of course you don’t want hire a homogenous “mini-me” team — there’s a bigger point that most are missing: It all depends on your culture.
If your culture contains biases, hiring for fit will perpetuate them. But get culture right — based on principles, expressed in competencies, and free of prejudice — and you can enjoy the benefits of an aligned workforce and be a welcoming place of diversity and inclusion.
Here’s the rundown.
Nuance is Necessary
It’s easy to understand how culture fit became controversial, and it’s clear that it comes from a good place: There is new and important support for diversity and inclusion initiatives. Many fear that optimizing for “fit” runs counter to diversity goals. We think that’s a noble angle — but it’s misguided.
A CEO’s primary goal is to hire a team that will achieve a vision, and establishing the right culture is a big part of that. Dismissing best-fit hiring entirely is detrimental to our work as talent professionals and strategic business partners to the organization. The fact is, hiring for fit can actually be perfectly in line with — even improve — diversity initiatives. It can be one of your most positively impactful strategies.
When Hiring for Culture Fit is a Positive
To get culture right you need to base it on a set of principles: beliefs that define what your company stands for and the type of people who work there. Principles represent the “how” part of your business, and they remain constant while other things like your product or go-to-market strategies change. It’s not about personality, demographics, backgrounds, or experience. It’s about a shared set of beliefs and approaches that unite your workforce with a common vision and mission.
Think of the cultures at places like Zillow and Airbnb. Being a “culture fit” at these companies means you align with a defined and distinctly articulated set of core values, such as Zillow’s “winning is fun” principle or “elephants, dead fish, and vomit” (aka honest communication) at Airbnb. The challenge is how to assess against these principles without bias.
When you focus on hiring for competency-based value alignment, you avoid hiring for likeness (are they like me?) or likability (do I like them?). Principles are neutral. You’re likely to pull in all kinds of people — a diverse mix — when you’re looking for shared values.
Quick example: Say you use academics — such as GPA — as filtering criteria for your interview shortlist. Look at the impact that approach had on diversity in campus recruiting across a wide range of employers (Koru data), compared to no significant bias when you filter based on something like the Koru7 Impact Skills (which map to cultural principles).
When cultural pillars are unbiased and focused on value-based competencies, hiring for culture fit is not just in alignment with diversity initiatives — it’s a diversity booster.
When Hiring for Culture Fit is a Problem
Again, all of this is not to say that the worries are unwarranted. We’re right to be concerned about the potential conflict between hiring for fit and being inclusive. That’s because many organizations are lazy about defining culture and evangelizing cultural principles, and the hiring process is often full of discriminatory practices (mini-me hiring, using the beer test, sourcing from exclusive networks, requiring specific degrees or GPAs, and so much more). Combined, these factors make hiring for fit certainly seem like a strategy you should start actively discouraging.
But you shouldn’t! Culture fit is as important as it ever was. But HR and senior leadership need to put in the work on company culture, and they need to use unbiased, consistent methods to rate applicants on their culture-related competencies (or values). They need to define organizational values, verify they’re unbiased, and communicate them widely. They need to ensure those principles make up the foundation on which all company actions and decisions are based — including hiring.
Culture fit does not mean “sameness.” Looking for best fits is still the way to go, and it’s a perfectly complementary strategy to a focus on diversity and inclusion. But it requires that you commit to getting culture right.
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