It’s time to bid farewell to “cultural fit.”
20 years ago, when the concept of company culture gained popularity, the term had more meaning. It meant: Does this candidate we’re interviewing have the same values as our company? Are they going to work well here? Would their work style be compatible with their teammates’ style?
These are all reasonable questions to consider, of course. But in recent years, as more companies developed diversity and inclusion programs, cultural fit has too often been used to eliminate—and discriminate against—candidates.
Here’s why I think cultural fit should not be a hiring disqualifier, and how to take a persuasive stand against it in the hiring process.
How a seemingly simple question can reinforce bias
Though it may have been started with the best intentions, the idea of “cultural fit” has gone awry. Take, for example, the hiring process at some tech companies. This industry is known for its elaborate interview processes, which often include offbeat questions to determine if a candidate is a good cultural fit, like what their favorite song is.
If the candidate’s favorite song is similar to or the same as the hiring manager’s, that candidate may be seen as a good cultural fit. However, if the candidate doesn’t have a favorite, the hiring manager might respond, “But everyone has a favorite song!” That’s bound to make the candidate feel uncomfortable, and it certainly won’t give them a sense of belonging.
On the surface, the favorite song question might seem harmless. But underneath, there are multiple problems with it. Firstly, the hiring manager should be looking for a great candidate—not a new best friend.
And unless the candidate is interviewing for a job with a band, what difference does their favorite song make?
More importantly, the hiring manager is, in effect, looking for someone who thinks just like them, which is a response that’s rife with bias. When two people are from different cultures, nations, races or gender orientations, they’re probably going to think differently about a lot of things. This kind of thinking will also inevitably contradict any diversity and inclusion initiatives the organization may have put in place.
Why culture add is much more meaningful than culture fit
Organizations that are ready to say goodbye to culture fit should start with a few steps.
-Replace cultural fit with “cultural add.” It means that the candidate in consideration will bring new, fresh and different ideas and experiences to their team. They’re more likely to add something the team doesn’t have. So when doing away with cultural fit, it’s a smart move to emphasize cultural add in its place. This will take support from the C-suite, of course, or the switch from “cultural fit” to “cultural add” won’t gain traction.
-Empower recruiters to push back. Replacing cultural fit with cultural add is more than just swapping one phrase for another. Recruiters must feel empowered to push back against someone who plays the cultural fit card. It’s important to challenge that thinking and behavior on the spot or things will never change.
For example, after reminding the hiring manager that cultural fit has been retired, the recruiter might ask, “Why don’t you believe the candidate is a good cultural fit?”
When prompting someone to put words to their feelings, they may start to recognize what’s behind their resistance. Maybe they’ll realize they’re just having a bad day or that the candidate went to the hiring manager’s rival college. Whatever the reason, gently challenging the hiring manager to consider their reasoning may lead them to realize that their reaction to the candidate is biased or otherwise baseless.
-Ask for more details. In the best outcome, after talking it through, the hiring manager will eventually let go of their cultural fit objection. But if not, what then?
The recruiter could follow up by asking, “What are you really looking for in this role? What are the skill sets you believe are necessary?”
A combative hiring manager may just say, “That’s all in the job description.” And there may be some truth to that. But what they’re really looking for and believe is necessary may not be in the job description. Getting them to articulate those attributes and skills, and then showing how the candidate actually possesses them, could be another way to get beyond a cultural fit impasse.
-Use rubric-based scoring. A rubric-based scoring system for candidates can be helpful in getting beyond the cultural fit roadblock. Because it defines the expectations with which each candidate will be assessed, a hiring rubric can help reduce bias in the hiring process.
So, a recruiter might ask a hiring manager exactly where in the rubric the candidate fell short. If the hiring manager can point to something specific, relevant and important, there may be a good case for moving on to another candidate. Otherwise, if the hiring manager can’t point to something specific, the recruiter should be prepared to continue challenging their thinking, especially if the candidate is a strong contender.
These suggestions can lead to uncomfortable conversations. But without them, organizations will only hire people who think exactly alike. If the company isn’t looking for different perspectives, how will anyone see things differently? If they don’t see things differently, how will the organization ever be able to innovate?
The truth is, difficult conversations can make for more successful companies. If the organization isn’t challenging the status quo, how will it become a bigger, better and more profitable organization in the future?
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LaFawn Davis is Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Indeed. She leads Indeed’s efforts to remove bias and eliminate barriers to entry to help all people get jobs.